Osmanthus, Tea and Me…the journey that led to the beautiful evergreens with heavenly fragrance

Carissa —the childhood shrub that began my journey

As a child, I loved to roam the rolling, green hills of Burundi, Africa. I generally escaped the dormitory on Sunday afternoons with the rest of the older kids under the supervision of a cane wielding, sturdy 65 year old hiker that we all lovingly called “Aunt Esther.” One of my favorite things to do was attempt to categorize and identify the plants that we saw. Of course I had no background in taxonomy or botany. I could quickly tell, though, which ones were annuals, herbs, perennials, shrub or trees; were more or less attractive, fragrant, or not, and so on and so on. Aunt Esther was an accomplished gardener, though she was not formally schooled in this vast realm.

African Holly

One of the plants that attracted me was what she called African Holly. It had lustrous green, elliptical, partly shiny leaves with tiny thorns. It was evergreen even in our driest of dry seasons. I discovered in my exploring that it particularly liked to grow near termite mounds. I was aware of this because we often caught the flying form of the termites at the beginning of the rainy season and popped them into tin cans. We then took them to the dorm, fried them up in butter and ate them as snacks. They were my childhood version of popcorn!

Another attribute of the African Holly was that it had white blooms in December while it also decorated itself with the previous year’s fruit. The berries were a beautiful red color and the flowers were very sweetly scented, reminiscent of Jasmine. We used it seasonally for decoration at home and in the dormitory during Christmas, in place of English Holly. (Although, at that time I was not familiar with English Holly so assumed that it looked like
African Holly).

Being the curious and compulsive child that I was, (I think that I had a touch of ADHD as well), I asked any adult close to me, its botanical name. Of course the slightly annoyed grown up response was, “I don’t know” or “African Holly”!

When I came to the United States at 17, this question was still on my mind. One day while haunting a nursery (which I did as often as I could to feed my spirit), I found what was called Natal Plum. I knew right then that I was close. The flower, the fruit and the leaves were almost identical to what I saw as a child, but larger in every way. At that time nurseries did not have the educational bent that they do now. No one at the nursery had the slightest idea about its botanical name, nor did they have any books about it. They acted irritated that I wanted to know. I continued to hunt and eventually found its taxonomical name in the library at Oregon State University (OSU)

in 1972. It was Carissa macrocarpa, a blooming evergreen which, unfortunately, is not hardy in Oregon. But I knew then that the shrub from my childhood was a Carissa, although I didn’t know its species. Someday I will find out!!!

Southern Holly

The years went on; I was married and we moved to Gainesville, Florida where I pursued a Master’s degree at the University of Florida. We loved to adventure on Sunday afternoons with another couple.

One day at their recommendation, we visited Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s (author of the Yearling) birth place in Cross Creek. What a wonderful relief from the strip mall, alligator farm, madness that is much of modern Florida! We discovered a historical, preserved farm on about 50 acres of land with semi tended orange groves and lakes. There were few modern amenities. All of the trees and shrubs were the original plants or were replacements. It was a one story, warm, southern, soft and gracious white house with wooden screen-doors and a screened-in porch for cooling air currents. It was reminiscent of my childhood residences. In the yard there was a picnic table with a flagstone spot to set your a portable BBQ. (We fixed our own southern BBQ chicken, right there, on charcoal briquettes).

On either side of the front door stoop were two flanking, broadleaf evergreen shrubs. The tiny yellowish orange flowers, sprinkled inside the bush, were intensely fragrant with an intoxicating scent of apricot and jasmine. Its fragrance and tidy, nice, evergreen habit reminded me of the Carissa of my childhood! I asked the museum curator inside what they were. She said that it was an old fashioned plant that all old southern homes had. She called it Southern Holly (!) or said that sometimes it was called Sweet Olive. I decided then and there that I would find its botanical name.

It took me about three years to sleuth it out, and by then I was living back in Oregon, again searching the OSU library. Osmanthus fragrans aurantiacus was its name. I read that it was from China and that the flowers were used to scent tea. There was even a region of China that was famous for raising varieties of Osmanthus fragrans strictly for the flowers. I decided that I had to find this plant in Oregon and attempt to grow it here. I hoped that it would be hardy. But of course no one that I knew had heard of it in 1979 in Oregon, so I waited.

In 1981 I took my young family with our one year old daughter Samara to Houston, Texas to visit my parents. My father was one of the paid pastors at the Friendsview, Texas, Friend’s Church. While there, I badgered my parents into visiting several nurseries to find this Southern Holly or Sweet Olive.

I finally located Osmanthus fragrans in a Texas nursery and bought two, one for my parents and one to take back to Oregon. I removed it from the pot, wrapped it in a plastic bag and it flew with me in my carry-on bag. It was blooming and had the same heavenly fragrance. I immediately planted it in what I thought was an appropriate spot at our Lake Grove garden in Lake Oswego.

It thrived but never bloomed again. That was discouraging. One winter in the mid 80’s we had a very cold and windy period. It got down to about 9 degrees Fahrenheit and froze pipes all over town. The foliage died to the ground and I assumed that it was dead. I was terribly disappointed. The Osmanthus fragrans that I had hoped would be a hardy replacement for Carissa, turned out not to be so.

But I still had hope. I went on a hunt to find out more about this genus. I just knew that there had to be others that would be hardier. To my delight I found more Osmanthus tucked away in Bean’s Trees and Shrubs Hardy to the British Isles. My compulsive nature took over and I knew that I was on to something special.

Osmanthus-fragrans-Aurantiacus in our garden.
Osmanthus-fragrans-Aurantiacus in our home garden at last!