The Scent Of Sugar

Tea Olive

Tea Olive

Known to have one of the sweetest scents in all the plant kingdom, one small, blooming specimen of Osmanthus fragrans can perfume an entire room.  Also known as Tea Olive or Sweet Olive, I first learned of this plant when reading “The Unexpected Houseplant” by Tovah Martin.

An avid houseplant aficionado and tropical plant expert, Ms. Martin had included a photo of a potted Tea Olive, which quite frankly didn’t look like much.  It was only a few feet tall, gangly and spindly, sparsely clothed in finely toothed, linear shaped leaves.  The white flowers were so small, they were hardly noticeable, despite the lack of foliage.  And yet, the written description was so enticing that I could not wait to go online and order one for myself.

Ms. Martin assured me that, though the plant itself would not grow quickly, nor reach more than a few feet as a houseplant, it was easy to bring into bloom in January, in my zone 5 window.  The scent, she wrote, was like “sugar sprinkled on the air”. Who can resist a description such as that?  I had no idea what sugar sprinkled on the air smelled like, but I knew that if it was possible to have such a thing in the gardenless month of January, I was definitely going to give it a try.

When my plant arrived last Fall, I could see she was right.  It wasn’t much to look at!  But bloom it did.  I potted my 2 year old, bare root, 18 inch tall shrub, gave it my blessing and a prime location on my desk, under an East/South window where it would get the morning and midday light.  It started blooming in December, only two months into its new location.  Unbelievably, as I write this, it is blooming still, while just a few inches beyond the windowsill the air outside is a frigid -16 below.

At first, I didn’t even notice the tiny blooms.  So gangly and unobtrusive is my Tea Olive that I barely gave it a glance, sitting behind a host of other, more lush and colorful potted plants.  But there was no ignoring the scent.  It drew me in, eager to find the source.  Now, my day is not complete without pressing my nose to the tiny white petals, closing my eyes in pure bliss and trying to inhale as much of the sweet perfume as my breath allows.

Despite the decidedly sweet aspect of its odor, the scent is not sickeningly so, nor is it cloying or overpowering.  It is light, gentle on the brain, refreshing and pleasant.  Other descriptions I have read liken the scent to apricots or peaches, with a touch of jasmine, but I don’t find those descriptions very fitting.  They don’t it justice.  Words fail the olfactory sensation.  Ms. Martin said it best.

So, what does “sugar sprinkled on the air smell like?”  Pure heaven. PLANT SPECS:

  • Evergreen, shrub
  • Natural outdoor habitat is China, approximately 30 degrees Latitude.  In the U.S., that would put it’s cold hardiness range in Florida and the southern half of Texas, in zones 8b through 10.  Some websites, however, have suggested ranges as broad as through zone 7b.
  • Tea Olive is the subject of several romantic Lunar legends, and used extensively during the Chinese Moon Festival.  The flowers are also used in the production of perfumes and herbal remedies, and added to tea leaves to make scented tea.
  • Growth Rate:  Slow to moderate, to about 3 feet indoors.  Can be pruned to encourage more branching, as leaves grow on the branch tips and the plant will get very leggy with time.
  • Bloom Period:  Indoors, will bloom intermittently from October through early Spring.
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