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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 flavouring tea and confectionery.

Detail of an illustration of fragrant olive

Detail of an illustration of Osmanthus fragrans by Lilian Snelling

Species information

Scientific name: 

Osmanthus fragrans Lour.

Common name: 

fragrant olive, tea olive, sweet olive

Conservation status: 

Not known to be threatened.

Habitat: 

Forests.

Key Uses: 

Ornamental, culinary, medicinal.

Known hazards: 

None known.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Asteranae
Order: 
Lamiales
Family: 
Oleaceae
Genus: Osmanthus

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 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.

Genus: 
Osmanthus

Discover more

Geography and 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.

Description

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.

Osmanthus fragrans 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.

Illustration of Osmanthus fragrant

Hand-coloured lithograph of Osmanthus fragrans by Lilian Snelling (1928), taken from Curtis's Botanical Magazine

Illustration from Curtis's Botanical Magazine

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.

Now well over 200 years old, it is the longest running botanical periodical featuring colour illustrations of plants. Each four-part volume contains 24 plant portraits reproduced from watercolour originals by leading international botanical artists. Detailed but accessible articles combine horticultural and botanical information, history, conservation and economic uses of the plants described.

Published for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew by Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.

Find out more about Curtis's Botanical Magazine

Uses

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

Cultivation

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.

References and credits

Chang, M-C., Chiu, L-C., Wei, Z. & Green, P.S. (2011). Flora of China, Volume 15: Oleaceae. Osmanthus fragrans. Available online (accessed 26 February 2011).

Ding Desheng & Kangming Yank (1989). Osmanthus fragrans in China. Perfum. Flavor. 14(5) (Sept.-Oct. 1989): 7-13.

Green, P.S. (1958). Osmanthus fragrans f. aurantiacus. Notes Roy. Bot. Gard. Edinburgh 22: 493.

Krussmann, G. (1986). Manual of Cultivated Broad-leaved Trees and Shrubs. Batsford, London.

Mabberley, D.J. (2008). Mabberley’s Plant-book: A Portable Dictionary of Plants, their Classification and Uses. 3rd edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Manandhar, N.P. (2002). Plants and People of Nepal. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.

Omura, H., Honda, K. & Hayashi, N. (2000). Floral scent of Osmanthus fragrans discourages foraging behavior of cabbage butterfly, Pieris rapae. J. Chem. Ecol. 26(3): 656-666.

Pinto, M.S. (2009). The Jesuits Le Cheron d´Incarville (1706-1757) and João de Loureiro (1717-1791) and the Plants of China. Presentation to the Macau Ricci Institute.

Stapf, O. (1928). Osmanthus fragrans var. aurantiacus. Curtis’s Bot. Mag. 154: tab. 9211.

World Checklist of Selected Plant Families (2010). The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Available online (accessed 15 November 2010).

Kew Science Editor: Martyn Rix
Kew contributors: Steve Davis and Chris Leon (Sustainable Uses Group)
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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