December in Germany smells like fir. In New England, it smells like smoke. But here on the Gulf Coast, December smells like tea olive.
The odor of tea olive comes sneaking out of nowhere after every rain, like the ghost of some strange half-tropical Christmas carol.
Yes, some will insist it’s sweet olive — a habit many in the South have fallen into of sugaring up our favorite things. However, it isn’t the sweetness of tea olive that hangs in the memory, but a certain dimension and fullness to the smell, like fresh vanilla and old roses, so substantial that you expect the odor to appear before you in some roughly recognizable form.
The scent lights up the dark days of winter. Tea olive blooms repeatedly from late September through early spring, seemingly after every rain, but its fragrance permeates the neighborhood during those many humid, mild days of December.Tracking down the source of the odor can be a hunt. The shrub is elusive, a pleasant dome of olive green leaves, lost among the azaleas and camellias that usually attract our attention this time of year. Its flowers are small, white, relatively inconspicuous buds and seem incapable of producing such a powerful fragrance. You imagine you must be rubbing up against it, only to discover that the perfume is emanating from a hidden shrub half a block away.
The tea olive, Osmanthus fragrans, is not native, but it is old with us here in the Deep South, having been one of the first Asian plants introduced to our gardens by way of Europe. Like all members of the genus osmanthus, it is closely related to the true olive of commerce, Olea europaea. But unlike their dry and dusty Mediterranean olive cousin, most osmanthus are native to the moist forests of southern Asia. And, while all osmanthus have some redolence, none can really compete with the plant named for its fragrance, Osmanthus fragrans.
The Chinese have even older memories of the tea olive. In the southern and western regions of China, it may grow to a height of 50 feet or more, and there are forests of it. It is considered one of the 10 traditional flowers of China, and some cities there have centuries-old festivals that celebrate its blooms.
Recipe for Flavor
The Chinese appreciate the tea olive for more than its perfume. The flowers are sometimes added to tea and are a prized ingredient in a number of traditional Chinese dishes. The flavor is like the fragrance, sweet and vanilla-like, elusive and substantial, all at once.
One traditional Chinese recipe sounds as if it came right out of a south Alabama garden, requiring thinly sliced Chinese yams (usually equivalent to our light yellow sweet potatoes), sugar, honey, cucumber, hawthorn jelly (mayhaw jelly would serve admirably), sesame seed oil and a tablespoon of “preserved osmanthus flowers.” The flowers are said to enhance the flavor of a number of preserved and cooked fruits and are particularly well matched to oriental and native persimmons.
In the United States, the tea olive is almost exclusively a treasure of the lower South. With the possible exception of its native range in China, I believe there is nowhere else in the world that it can be grown to such perfection.
Unfortunately, it is one of the least hardy of all the osmanthus, and much north of Atlanta, the plant is often killed to the roots. It blooms here from early fall through spring, but it is the moistness of winter that keeps the fragrances aloft for such long distances, and it seems to attract the most notice from late November through early February.
In your grandparents’ day, a tea olive was just a tea olive. There were no variations. But increasingly, there are many varieties to choose from. The cultivar with the strange name “Fudingzhu” is one to look out for. Its flower clusters are so dense, their show almost matches their fragrance.
Gold, orange and red-flowered varieties of common tea olive (often sold as Osmanthus fragrans forma aurantiacus) are harder to come by, though the pale orange to deeper red flowers are certainly showier than the white or ivory versions. But these orange-flowered forms are often shy to bloom, so you better sniff quickly.
As a testament to the tree’s hardiness and vigorousness, some old tea olives I have seen in Mobile are taller than the houses they were planted around, with canopy spreads over 15 feet wide. Good gardeners give their tea olives plenty of room to grow.
The one mistake I think gardeners make is to plant the tea olive in a prominent place. It’s the odor, not the appearance, that makes it such a treasure. Give it a half-day of sun, hidden in the side yard, so passersby can wonder at the source of their sweet, mysterious delight.
Gulf Coast Almanac
Bloom of the Month
I can’t tell you why we forgot about one of the Gulf Coast’s most handsome and dependable winter bloomers, calendulas. Your great-grandmother may have called them “pot marigolds, ” but they thrive and produce their beautiful (and edible) blooms even during the harshest winters, as long as the plants are big and budded before the shortest days of winter. Start them from seed in September so you can mix them with your pansies, snapdragons, delphiniums and other winter bloomers.
Signs of the Season
With the first hard frost, the first hard rains of winter commence, seeping deep into the solid, dry ground of fall. Robins return not seeking spring, but the soft, warm ground of a Gulf Coast winter and refuge from the frozen wasteland of the North.
What’s the shortest day of the year for? To remind you that it’s time to sow your spring peas, set out onions and start your tomatoes and peppers for next year. If you’re going to have plants ready to produce by the peak of our tomato season in May and June, you need to start seeds now, inside or in a cold frame or greenhouse.
Ripe for Picking
If you’re not picking broccoli fresh for the holidays, with armloads of kale, arugula, lettuce, parsley, mustard, chard and other greens — well, you just haven’t figured out what a great harvest season winter is on the Gulf Coast. The first frost only intensifies the flavor of cool season plants sown in September and early October.
Bill Finch has been the voice of authority on Gulf Coast gardening and the environment for more than two decades. Talk to him every Sunday morning, from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. on the Gulf Coast Sunday Morning show on Talk Radio 106.5 FM. Don’t miss him and WKRG weatherman John Nodar cutting up in the garden every Friday on News 5 at noon.