Osmanthus – not to be overlooked

The very name should command our attention – from the Greek osme meaning fragrant, and anthos meaning flower. Not surprising given that is belongs in the Oleaceae family. Yet despite this, and perhaps because most of the time these are leathery evergreen shrubs, Osmanthus is not as well appreciated as it might be.

I first encountered this genus when gardening in London and needing something that would fill a difficult gap in a south-east facing dryish, shady border. And so I planted one of the Holly Olives or Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’. This variegated shrub hails from Japan and means ‘five shades’ as it does wander through the palette of cream-yellow-greens and throws in some Spring rouge and bronze.

shades of the Japanese holly olive

Although tolerant of the situation I’d forced it into, it would have preferred much more light, liking both full sun to part shade. It would then have flowered, in a barely visible but highly fragrant Jasminesque way from late summer.

Having left it behind in London, I wanted to give this shrub a second go, especially as it perfectly suits plans I have for my forthcoming Japanese garden. (Most Osmanthus are from eastern Asia and in Japanese are called mokusei. The flowers are added to tea.). Thus, a new one was purchased back in March and is enjoying much more light and attention than its predecessor.

One Osmanthus that certainly drew my attention was growing in Russell Square gardens. A dark-green, small-leaved plant with a smothering of tiny white very fragrant flowers that assailed the passer-by in late Spring. I eventually identified this also as an Osmanthus and could hardly connect it with the small holly-like shrub I had mouldering in shade.

Osmanthus burkwoodii vs heterophyllus

I think now it was Osmanthus delavayi but had added it to my wishlist as Osmanthus x burkwoodii. Not too far off with my guess as it is in fact a hybrid between O. delavayi and O. decorus raised by Burkwood and Skipwith.

So this Spring I also purchased a Burkwoodii (by mail-order as we were still in Covid lockdown). It was not in good condition and I’d evidently missed its flowering, but now the plant has put on much new growth and is starting to look like a serrated-edged privet. This may account for why it is widely used in hedging – something I may eventually plan to do in my new garden, after taking cuttings.

“An evergreen saved from ignominy by pure heads of sweetly fragrant white flowers in mid spring – good at lighting up a semi-shady corner behind ferns or glimmering white narcissi” Val Bourne – Garden Writer on Osmanthus x Burkwoodii