Osmanthus—the Legendary Flower of Kweilin: Part Two

As the new owner of a landscape design and installation company in 1983, I found that many times I needed an evergreen that was not a Rhododendron, Ligustrum, Photinia or one of the Prunus. I wanted a genus that was tough, did not get diseases, came in various sizes and did not mind full sun or even drought occasionally. I wanted something that had fragrant flowers but was not messy and did not grow so fast that it overpowered clients’ or my ability to manage.

One day, I was asked to check out the plants in a back yard of an old home in the northwest area of Portland. The client wanted a landscape makeover but first wanted to know which plants to keep. All of the plants in the garden were a minimum of 25 years old and were either enormous or hacked badly. After walking around the many Yews, chopped Junipers and Rhodies, I came upon three similar plants that I had not seen before. They were lightly trimmed, about four feet in height and breadth, and had trunks of about 3-inch diameter. They were covered with buds and were just beginning to bloom. Their leaves were small, about 1 inch long and ½ inch wide, lightly toothed and evergreen. The little white trumpet flowers had a light powdery sweet fragrance during late March. I asked the clients if they were familiar with the plant. They said “no” but that it was the only plant which they really enjoyed in their garden and they wanted to keep it.

I took a leaf in to several nurseries and no one knew what it was. I looked in my books and happened to revisit the genus Osmanthus. The leaf and flower looked like the picture of Osmanthus delavayii. I was excited. Here was the fragrance I wanted in an evergreen and was not huge, even after 25 years. It was a manageable size with only light trimming. When I returned a week later the plant was in full white bloom, very fragrant and beautiful.

Next, I came across Osmanthus x burkwoodii. This is a cross of Osmanthus delavayii and Osmanthus decorus. It fit perfectly in my scheme of things as this plant is great for a smaller hedge. I have found that it can be easily maintained at about 5 to 6 feet with once-a-year trimming. In spring, it has about the same powder sweet scent as delavayii. Its leaves are bigger, about 2 inches long and about 1 inch wide and not toothed.

Osmanthus heterophyllus and its varieties came next. This tough evergreen’s fragrance attracted my attention one October in Lake Oswego while I was weeding at a house near the lake. I thought that it was a strange Holly but quickly found that, no, here again was an Osmanthus to add to my collection! Its leaves were opposite like the other Osmanthus plants and not like a Holly’s. It is a tough evergreen and its fragrance is a bit like honey and jasmine.

There are several varieties of O. heterophyllus, but ‘Goshiki’ has become my favorite. It is slow growing and the foliage develops amazing color combinations of medium green and yellow splotches with pink streaks. It does burn in reflected heat but can take full sun. The term heterophyllus means varying leaves. When it is young the leaves tend to be somewhat toothed like a holly, but as it grows into maturity it develops leaves that are smooth or only occasionally toothed and appears almost to be a different bush.

One of my favorite spots in Seattle is the University of Washington Arboretum. I have found many live plants there that I have seen only in books. I decided in the 80s that I would locate every Osmanthus in the park to see if there were other species that were special. I did come across O. decorus, O. americanus, O. armatus, O. burkwoodii, O. fragrans, O. Yunnanensis, and O. fortunei. (O. suavis or O. serrulatis were listed as in the arboretum, but I could not find them.)

Since then, I have purchased and grown all of the above species except the two that I could not find in the Arboretum. (Osmanthus can quickly be differentiated from Ilex by their opposite leaves. Ilex leaves are never opposite.) Here are a few of the species I have enjoyed:

O. decorus is a neat mounding evergreen with little white mildly fragrant spring blooms.  It is tough and drought tolerant even in dense shade. Its leaves are about three  inches long and about one to one and a half inches wide. They are not toothed at all. If I could find a good source I would use it much more often.

O. Yunnanensis looks sort of like a much larger O. decorus. It has the largest leaves of any that I have seen and is not toothed like armatus or heterophyllus. It has olive green leaves and blooms profusely and fragrantly in spring. So far, it is the Osmanthus that I think is the best small evergreen patio tree or specimen. It looks a bit like a Michelia or Parakmeria. I would use it on our designs also if I could find it anywhere but Woodlander’s Nursery in Aiken, Georgia.

O. x fortunei is a cross between O. heterophyllus and O. fragrans. I have found this to be the most satisfying Osmanthus for taller hedging in our climate. It is a tough evergreen, completely drought tolerant, hardy in shade or sun and has the most amazing fragrance on a warm autumn day. It is the fastest growing of them all but can be easily contained to 8 feet. Its fragrance to me is a mix of the jasmine and honey of heterophyllus and the jasmine and apricot mix of O. fragrans. O. x fortunei comes in two varieties that I have found:

‘San Jose’ which is a little more narrow growing and lighter green, and Natchez which is darker green and wider. They can be found at Woodlander’s, Gossler’s (Springfield, Oregon), Greer’s (Eugene, Oregon) and Heronswood (Seattle Area).

O. fragrans was the species for which I most wanted to find a hardy variety and dependable bloomer for our climate. Many varieties of O. fragrans are grown commercially in China. One of their favorite varieties, also quite common in San Francisco, is called O.f. aurantiacus. It is known in New Orleans as “Orange Tea Olive.” Its blooms are a rusty orange and very fragrant. I have had trouble with hardiness in this variety and it has never bloomed for me, but I haven’t given up on it.

Sean Hogan of Cistus Nursery here in the Portland area recently told me of some O. fragrans varieties new on the market. I am in the process of trying them out. They are purported to be hardier with an earlier bloom period.

(These Osmanthus varieties can all be found at Nurseries Caroliniana, Inc., www.nurcar.com.)

O. f. ‘Thunbergii’—supposedly longer blooming and yellow flowered.

O. f. ‘Nenjing’s Beauty’—also longer blooming, white flowered.

O. f. ‘Fudingzhu’—purported to be the most fragrant and blooms off and on all year.

My deck is finally built and I am currently pondering the exact locations where I can plant these three varieties of O. fragrans, so that their fragrance will waft up onto the deck.  Naturally, I want to appreciate their beauty also. One day I plan to make the perfect cup of Osmanthus tea and I won’t have to live in Kweilin or New Orleans to do it, I will just sit back on my deck and sip.

The Chinese are very fond of Osmanthus fragrans flowers in tea and as a perfume; hence the English Southern name of the plant, “Tea Olive.” The center for the culture of O. fragrans in China is Kweilin on the Likiang River. The name of the city means, “Forest of Sweet Osmanthus”.

—Phil Thornburg

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!


Home Remodeling Issue: Woman’s Day Specials


Our Feature in:

Woman’s Day Specials Home Remodeling Issue – 2001

“Fourteen months of remodeling work transformed this average ranch from top to bottom, inside and out. Even the yards were given a new look, with the assistance of landscape designer Philip Thornburg. Now, instead of the original sloping lawn, the property is adorned with balanced beds of perennials. The foliage will grow together in a few short years thanks to the humid, Oregon climate.”


Great Backyards Summer 2013


Our Feature in:

Great Backyards  Summer 2013 CC#77GreatBackyards 2013 MakeoverNEWjb Gardening How-To January/February 2013

“Paper first backhoe second. – That’s Phil Thornburg’s most important garden design advice – not just for his landscape design clients in Portland, Oregon, area, but also for himself. Plan your design, then start moving earth, buying plants and planting. And when life and budget get in the way, have patience.”