These shrubs and trees have real appeal for their compelling fragrance, hardiness and variegation
“Fragrance is king in a classical Chinese garden,” explained Glin Varco, director of horticulture at the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, Oregon.
It’s no wonder then that the plant collection at Lan Su includes a significant assortment of evergreen osmanthus shrubs and trees. All of them produce enchantingly fragrant flowers — some in spring, but most of them in fall or winter.
At Lan Su in early October, an upright Osmanthus fragrans var. aurantiacus kicked off the fall bloom with masses of delicate orange blooms.
The bloom of slow-growing O. fragrans was getting underway elsewhere at Lan Su, too. Clusters of tiny white blooms, redolent of ripe apricots or peaches, danced among the small tree’s dark green, glossy leaves.
Flowers from these attractive evergreens are so aromatic that they are harvested and used to flavor tea, wine, cakes and other delicacies. Traditional Chinese medicine claims that antioxidants in osmanthus can improve the complexion. The essence of osmanthus flowers is also used to make fine perfume.
Big in China
There are 23 species of osmanthus native to China, where the plants boast wide use and symbolic importance. They are associated with nobility, and play a role in traditional Chinese wedding ceremonies as a symbol of true love and faithfulness.
But as garden and landscape plants in the U.S., the attributes of osmanthus are surprisingly underutilized. Despite their hardiness and adaptability, their evergreen foliage and exquisite fragrance, osmanthus does not have a
very significant market presence.
Arda Berryhill, owner of Berryhill Nursery in Sherwood, Oregon, sells
liners and containers of several varieties of osmanthus.
“I like the plant,” she said, “but they are anything but hot sellers. O. delavayi is the most popular, with osmarea (O. × burkwoodii) next.”
Some growers are enjoying good luck with the genus, however.
Pam Snodgrass, owner of P&D Nursery, a wholesale grower of broad-leaf shrubs in Tualatin, Oregon, has had better success with osmanthus. Her nursery supplies O. delavayi and O. heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’ in #1 containers as “move-up” material for other growers, #2 containers for retailers (“a nice size and a decent price point”) and #5 containers for the landscape industry.
“I love osmanthus,” Snodgrass said. “It is a good plant for us. We sell out across the board every year. We sell quite a few to landscapers. It is easy to talk people into osmanthus because they are beautiful, tough as nails and drought tolerant when established.”
Snodgrass recommended their use as hedges or screens, and as stand-alone specimens.
Chris Steinke of Youngblood Nursery in Salem, Oregon, agreed that osmanthus is underappreciated by the public.
“We here at Youngblood Nursery appreciate them, though. They are low maintenance, and they don’t need as much water as other shrubs we grow. All varieties look good throughout the year.”
The three varieties grown at Youngblood Nursery — ‘Goshiki’, ‘Purpurea’ and ‘Rotundifolia’ — sell steadily, Steinke said, and demand has been increasing for a few years now.
“Matter of fact, we have had more demand for ‘Purpurea’ and ‘Rotundifolia’ than we can keep up with.”
Steinke sees great potential in the genus: four more selections are “coming down the line” at Youngblood, he said.
Youngblood’s expanded assortment will include a few selections from the Great Plant Picks program, which
recommends plant varieties that thrive
in the Pacific Northwest. Five varieties
of osmanthus have made the GPP list
so far: O. delavayi, O. × burkwoodii,
O. ‘Goshiki’, O. h. ‘Purpureus’ and
O. h. ‘Variegatus’.
Osmanthus by the X’s and O’s
O. delavayi (sweet olive) drapes neatly over large boulders in the entry courtyard and one of the interior garden rooms at Lan Su Chinese Garden. The prolific spring bloomer “doesn’t pack the (fragrance) punch” of the fall bloomers, according to Varco.
O. delavayi has other strengths. Leonard Foltz of Dancing Oaks in Monmouth, Oregon, has found O. delavayi to be a good choice for an espalier or a narrow spot in the garden. The elegant, classic combination of small, dark green, evergreen leaves and clusters of fragrant white flowers provide year-round interest. A slower grower than O. × burkwoodii, O. delavayi can be clipped into a hedge, allowed to grow naturally or grown in a container.
O. delavayi gets 5–8 feet tall and wide, is very easy to grow in conditions as varied as full sun and deep shade, and tolerates a range of soils. It is hardy to USDA Zone 7.
O. × burkwoodii (hybrid sweet olive) is another spring bloomer with clusters of fragrant white flowers in April. Although not grown at Lan Su, O. × burkwoodii has plenty of attributes to recommend it. Small, medium green, leathery evergreen leaves maintain a presence throughout the year, making the tough shrub a good choice for privacy screens.
A cross between the Chinese O. delavayi and the Turkish/Georgian O. decorus, O. × burkwoodii can get fairly large, 5–8 feet tall and wide. Adaptable to sun and shade, sand and clay, O. × burkwoodii is drought tolerant when established. It can even support climbing clematis to extend its seasonal interest.
Foltz finds O. × burkwoodii to be the most reliable, vigorous grower. “O. delavayi grows well in the ground,” he said, “but it’s not as easy to strike roots or to get established as O. × burkwoodii.”
“Burkwoodii makes a nice hedge, although it can grow a little wild and may benefit from some pruning to keep it tidy,” Snodgrass said.
Both O. delavayi and O. × burkwoodii are listed by Great Plant Picks as shrubs that perform well in very heavy, dry shade.
O. heterophyllus is called “false holly” because its leaves resemble spiky holly, especially when young. Several varieties offer an interesting assortment of choices. They appeal mostly for their interesting foliage and superior function, but their flowers can be rather inconspicuous.
The most well known and widely grown of the species — the “hands-down best seller” at Youngblood Nursery — is the hybrid ‘Goshiki’. The very slow-growing shrub boasts striking variegated foliage that brightens dark spots in the garden.
Snodgrass recommends ‘Goshiki’ for its colorful foliage, attractive habit and tough constitution, requiring virtually no maintenance. Although not a fragrant bloomer, the color contrast of green, yellow and the reddish tint of new leaves makes ‘Goshiki’ a popular plant that “pops in the garden,” Snodgrass said.
Goshiki translates as “five-colored” in Japanese and refers to cream, pink, orange, yellow and white spots and swirls found on every leaf.
A popular, multi-purpose plant, ‘Goshiki’ is useful as an informal, colorful hedge that only gets about 4 feet tall; it works well in containers too, according to Foltz. Extremely tough and a little slow to grow, ‘Goshiki’ presents no problems with propagation, Snodgrass said.
Rarities in the field
Other selections of osmanthus can be found in the trade, but may deserve production in larger numbers.
One of these, O. h. ‘Rotundifolius’, holds forth at Lan Su, where its late fall/early winter flowers fill the garden with intense fragrance. The slow-growing selection (usually about 5 feet tall and wide) has unusual leathery leaves that look like little, flat paddles.
“People like the rounded, undulating foliage,” Foltz said. “The plant grows densely and keeps a nice rounded shape, so it is a good choice for smaller spaces. It is always good-looking and happy in full sun to part shade.”
“‘Rotundifolia’ is more of a rarity, not seen a lot,” Steinke said. “It seems to be sought after by the designer who wants something just a bit different, and the garden center owner who has a penchant for the unusual.”
In Steinke’s experience, though, ‘Rotundifolia’ seems to be the hardest to get to a sellable size. It needs time to fill in, but it does have small, white fragrant flowers.
Perhaps the most striking of the selections at Lan Su is O. h. ‘Sasaba’, a very slow-growing, upright plant. The standout feature of this compact false holly is its beautiful, albeit sharp, foliage. Very narrow, deeply lobed, verdant green leaves are tipped with spikes and held in erect clusters; the effect is gorgeous. Fragrant white flowers appear later in the fall.
Youngblood Nursery now grows ‘Sasaba’ as well as O. h. ‘Ogon’. ‘Ogon’ takes the brightening effect of ‘Goshiki’ to new heights: golden foliage keeps its color throughout the year. A dwarf form that grows slowly to 4–5 feet with a widely pyramidal shape, ‘Ogon’ produces fragrant flowers in fall.
Another variety found at Lan Su, O. × fortunei produces extremely fragrant flowers. Its leathery, evergreen leaves start out with somewhat toothed edges, becoming smooth with age. The drought-tolerant plant makes an excellent evergreen screen or hedge, and will develop a large stature if allowed to grow naturally.
Youngblood Nursery also grows O. h. ‘Purpureus’, a purple-leaved selection popular with East Coast garden centers, according to Steinke.
O. yunnanensis, a native of south-central China, thrives at Lan Su. Its leaves are among the largest of the genus. The British website Architectural Plants claims it is “the most architectural of the genus, a large-leafed, distinctive, evergreen little tree (to 20 feet) that is unaccountably rare.”