Osmanthus fragrans (fragrant olive)
Fragrant olive is an evergreen tree or shrub, with strongly-scented flowers; it is cultivated as an ornamental and has a long history of use in traditional herbal medicine and for flavouring tea and confectionery.
About this species
The generic name Osmanthus comes from the Greek osma, meaning fragrant, and anthos, meaning flower. Osmanthus fragrans certainly lives up to this name, having exquisitely scented flowers. It was formally described by João de Loureiro, a Portuguese Jesuit missionary, whose Flora Cochinchinensis, published in 1790, included descriptions of plants from Cochinchina (in southern Vietnam), China and Mozambique. Fragrant olive has been cultivated in China for about 2,500 years, and is still of importance there today, the flowers being widely used to flavour tea, wine and sweets, as well as an ingredient in herbal medicine. The city of Guilin (meaning ‘forest of sweet osmanthus’) is named after the numerous Osmanthus trees there. It is a popular street tree throughout the warmer parts of China, filling the air with scent on warm autumn evenings.
Geography & Distribution
Native from the Himalaya (where it is found at 1,200–3,000 m above sea level) to China, Indochina and south Japan: also commonly cultivated in China, Taiwan and south Japan.
A large, upright shrub or small tree in the wild, with finely-toothed, evergreen, glossy dark green leaves, 7–15 cm long and 2–5 cm wide. The flowers are small (5 mm long), creamy-white (or orange-coloured in Osmanthus fragrans var. aurantiacus), strongly fragrant, four-petalled and are borne in stalked clusters, from summer to autumn. The fruits are bluish berries up to 12 mm long.
Illustration from Curtis's Botanical Magazine
Hand-coloured lithograph of Osmanthus fragrans by Lilian Snelling (1928), taken from Curtis's Botanical Magazine (Image: RBG Kew)
Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (Editor: Martyn Rix) provides an international forum of particular interest to botanists and horticulturists, plant ecologists and those with a special interest in botanical illustration.
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Osmanthus fragrans has a long history of use in herbal medicine, and is used in perfumery and as a flavouring. The flowers are used to make a scented jam and tea (hence its common name, tea olive), and in traditional herbal medicine a decoction of the stem bark is used to treat boils and carbuncles. The essential oil has insect-repelling properties.
Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage
Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.
Description of seeds: Average 1,000 seed weight = 174.95 g.
Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: None.
Fragrant olive can form a tree up to 6 m high and wide, and so needs plenty of room to grow, though is often trained as a small, standard tree. It is hardy to -5°C for short periods, but in cooler areas, such as Britain, it is best grown in a glasshouse or conservatory, or against a warm wall.
Osmanthus fragrans was first introduced to Europe in 1789, when it was brought to Kew as Olea fragrans, but this early introduction was from southern China, and did not thrive or flower well in England.
This species at Kew
Fragrant olive can be seen growing in the Temperate House at Kew.
Specimens of wood from Osmanthus fragrans are held in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection, where they are available to researchers, by appointment.
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