Tea Olive Plant Profile

Tea Olive in bloom, white waxy blossoms and dark green glossy leaves

 Kate / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Tea Olive trees (also known as sweet olive, sweet osmanthus, and fragrant olive) are technically an evergreen shrub. They have glossy evergreen leaves and their clusters of small white flowers are heavily fragrant, well-loved for their heady floral perfume. There are about fifteen different species of tea olive, some with toothed leaves, some with rounded leaves, and all are grown in warm areas with USDA hardiness zones of 8 to 11. The different species vary in size and appearance, with some differences in leaf shape and color; one is called "false holly" due to the pointed leaves resembling holly leaves. The blossoms appear in spring, blooming heavily through early summer, and then flower intermittently through fall.

Botanical Name Osmanthus fragrans
Common Name Tea Olive, Sweet Olive
Plant Type Shrub
Mature Size 15 to 30 feet tall
Sun Exposure Full sun to partial shade
Soil Type well drained, moist
Soil pH 5.5 to 7.5
Bloom Time Spring, then intermittent
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 8 to 11
Native Areas Eastern North America, Mexico, southeast Asia, Hawaii, and New Caledonia
white blooms and dark green foliage in shade site
The creamy white blossoms are attractive and heavily scented.  J.H.J.F.W.Br. / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

How to Grow Tea Olive

These shrubs are easy to grow and resilient, and they respond well to being transplanted or to heavy pruning. They're resistant to pests. They're grown commonly throughout the southern United States as a landscaping shrub prized for their fragrant flowers, with a scent that has been compared to jasmine, orange blossoms and ripe apricots or peaches. When cultivated, tea olive tends to reach between 15-20' feet at maturity, but in its native habitats it can grow up to 30' tall. The American native variety (Osmanthus americanus) is known as "devilwood" and is the only variety of tea olive that is tolerant of salt spray. It can be somewhat invasive and so in some areas its growth is restricted; for example, in St. Louis, Missouri it is required that tea olive be grow in containers. These plants can also be trained to grow in different forms such as privacy hedges, small tree forms, or espalier.

Light

Tea olive likes a good amount of sun but will grow fine with partial shade. Certain varieties may show some leaf discoloration in full sun. Four to five hours of direct sun will ensure the heaviest flowering. Afternoon shade is preferable to morning shade, to prevent late afternoon heat from burning foliage in especially hot weather.

Soil

Moist, well drained soil that is acidic to slightly alkaline is best for this evergreen shrub. If soil is too alkaline, there are various amendments that can be added to improve it. Soil that is too wet or perpetually soggy may cause root rot and so such spots should be avoided.

Water

These shrubs are fairly drought tolerant and should not need extra watering, unless there is an unusually dry spring or summer.

Temperature and Humidity

Since they grow best in warm zones, tea olives can tolerate high temperatures and humidity. They're not suited for arid or desert climates, however, as they prefer the humid air found in the southeastern states.

Fertilizer

These long-lived plants should not be any need for fertilizers as long as the soil has some amendments added to enrich it when planting. If the soil becomes thin due to erosion, adding a basic compost and soil mix to the base of the plant will help ensure nutrient delivery.

Planting Tea Olive

Choose a good site with well-drained soil. Tea olive is tolerant of most soils but it does need good drainage and medium fertility. If the soil seems too sandy, add some loam and compost. Water in and water every two days for two weeks until it is established.

Propagating Tea Olive

It's fairly easy to propagate tea olive. Take a cutting in early winter when growth is slow. Cut a six- to eight-inch stem piece just above a leaf node, where a leaf meets the stem. Remove leaves from the bottom half of the stem. Dip the cut end in rooting hormone. Plant in a small container with an equal mixture of perlite and peat moss, moistening the planting mix lightly. Cover the cutting and pot with a clear plastic bag, securing the bag to the pot with twine or a rubber band. Keep the potting medium moist by adding water to the saucer. Roots should appear in early spring and then you can plant in another pot before transplanting to a garden location.

Toxicity

Tea olives are not toxic to humans or animals. The fruits are edible and when unripe can be preserved in brine like olives.

Growing in Containers

Because these shrubs need well-drained soil be sure to select a container with good drainage holes, and use drainage material such as gravel in the bottom. The pot size should be at least eight to 12" wider than the root ball if you are planting a nursery specimen, and then as the shrub grows you can transplant into lager containers.