How to Grow and Care for Tea Olive Shrubs

Tea olive shrub with clusters of tiny white flowers on long branches

The Spruce / Krystal Slagle

Tea olives, also known as sweet olive, sweet osmanthus, and fragrant olive, are evergreen shrubs. They have glossy evergreen leaves and produce clusters of small white flowers that are well-loved for their heady floral perfume.

Native to Asia, there are about 15 different species of tea olive, all of which are grown in warm areas within USDA hardiness zones 8b to 11a. The different species vary in size and appearance, with some differences in leaf shape and color, though most boast some variation of glossy dark green leaves and clusters of tiny white flowers. Tea olives grow at a slow to moderate pace, adding between four and 12 inches a year. Their blossoms appear in spring, blooming heavily through early summer, and then flowering intermittently through fall.

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Common Name Tea Olive, Sweet Olive
Botanical Name Osmanthus fragrans
Family Oleaceae
Plant Type Shrub
Mature Size 6–30 ft. tall, 6–30 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full, partial
Soil Type Moist but well-drained
Soil pH Neutral to acidic
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color White
USDA Hardiness Zones 8b - 11a
Native Area Asia

Tea Olive Care

These shrubs are easy to grow and they respond well to being transplanted or heavy pruning. 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 properly, tea olive can grow up to 30 feet tall. These plants can also be trained to grow in different forms such as privacy hedges, small tree forms, or espalier. The related American native Cartrema americanus is known as "devilwood" and is the only variety of tea olive that is tolerant of salt spray, making it a good option for coastal locations.

Tea olive tree in corner of backyard with white flower clusters in sunlight

The Spruce / Krystal Slagle

Tea olive shrub with tiny white flower clusters and buds on long branches in sunlight

The Spruce / Krystal Slagle

Tea olive shrub against blue sky with tiny white flower clusters on branches

The Spruce / Krystal Slagle

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. Generally, four to five hours of direct sun will ensure the heaviest flowering. Afternoon shade is preferable to morning shade to prevent the late afternoon heat from burning the foliage in especially hot weather.

Soil

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

Water

Tea olive shrubs are fairly drought tolerant and should not need extra watering unless there is an unusually dry spring or summer. Plan to give your tea olive shrub at least one inch of water per week, either through rainfall or manual watering methods.

Temperature and Humidity

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

Fertilizer

These long-lived plants should not need fertilizers as long as the soil they're planted in 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.

Types of Tea Olive

There are several types of tea olive to choose from, including:

  • 'Butter Yellow' - Just as the name implies, these shrubs produce a proliferation of butter-yellow flowers.
  • 'Orange Supreme' - Bright orange blossoms adorn this plant.
  • 'Fudingzhu' - This cold-hardy variety blooms for a longer time than many other tea olive varieties and doesn't grow quite as large.

Pruning

Tea olive does not need pruning to thrive. Some, in fact, can grow aggressively and become garden bullies. If you want to control the growth of your shrub or shape your plant into a traditional conical shape, you can prune tea olive occasionally. Prune in early spring before new growth begins, cutting the branches back to right above a healthy leaf bud. Do not prune more than one-third of the shrub at a time.

Propagating Tea Olive

It's fairly easy to propagate tea olive from stem cuttings, which should be taken from the plant in early winter when growth is slow. To properly propagate a tea olive shrub, follow the below steps:

  1. Cut a 6- to 8-inch stem piece just above a leaf node, where a leaf meets the stem.
  2. Remove leaves from the bottom half of the stem.
  3. Dip the cut end of the stem in a rooting hormone.
  4. Plant the stem cutting cut side down in a small container that's been filled with an equal mixture of moistened perlite and peat moss.
  5. Cover the cutting and pot with a clear plastic bag, securing the bag to the pot with twine or a rubber band.
  6. Place the plant somewhere warm and sunny and keep the potting medium moist by adding water to the saucer beneath it. Roots should appear in early spring, at which point you can plant the shrub in a larger pot before transplanting it to a garden location.

How to Grow Tea Olive From Seed

To grow tea olive from seed, fill a container with a dedicated seed starting mix. Place the seed about one inch below the surface of the soil and gently water them so the soil is moist but not wet. Place the container on a heat mat and under grow lights to provide the best of heat and humidity. Expect to give the seedlings at least 14 hours of light each day until germination, which could take anywhere from one week to several months, depending upon the variety. Keep the strongest seedlings indoors for two or three months before transplanting in the spring.

Potting and Repotting Tea Olive

Because these shrubs need well-drained soil, you should make sure to select a container with good drainage holes and use drainage material such as gravel in the bottom. If you live in a particularly wet climate, it's also a good idea to plant your tea olive in a terracotta or clay pot that will help wick away excess moisture from the soil.

When planting your tea olive shrub, the size of your pot should be at least 8 to 12 inches wider than the root ball of your chosen specimen. As your shrub grows, you can incrementally increase to a larger container.

Overwintering

When growing tea olive outside of its hardiness zones, consider using it as a container plant so it can be brought inside when winter hits. Those that are in the ground in colder climates can benefit from a thick layer of mulch over the roots as the weather turns colder. It also helps to plant the shrub in an area that protects it from the elements, such as near a fence or outbuilding.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

If your tea olive shrub is struggling, it might fall victim to scale. The best cure is prevention by ensuring you keep a healthy plant, however, neem oil can be applied to help prevent scale. Other diseases that might affect tea olive include leaf spot, canker, and anthracnose.

How to Get Tea Olive to Bloom

Several factors contribute to tea olive shrubs blooming successfully. One of the most important is ensuring your plant gets enough sunlight—the more light the plants receive, the better their flower display will be (that being said, you don't want your plant to get scorched by harsh rays). Beyond light needs, make sure to prune your plant at the right time of year (if at all) so you don't accidentally cut off soon-to-be blooms.

FAQ
  • How long can tea olive live?

    With proper care, tea olive plants can live between 25 and 50 years.

  • Can tea olive plants grow indoors?

    While tea olive plants can be brought indoors for a brief season or cold weather, they thrive outdoors and will not usually bloom if grown indoors.

  • What are alternatives to tea olive?

    In place of tea olive, try other flowering shrubs like spirea, doublefile viburnum, or mock orange.

Article Sources
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  1. Tea Olive. Clemson University Home and Garden Information Center.