A Gardening Journal

Upright Holly Osmanthus—in bloom

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November is for Osmanthus flowers that are still open, regardless of frost and snow.  Oh, oh, oh, my.  They're not much bigger in flower than they are in bud but, oh, the fragrance!  Sweet—and because the small flowers are also hidden at the base of the leaves—also stealthy. 

 

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Amazing that these flowers—a fraction the size of my finger, below, which looks as big as Moby Dick by comparison—can infuse the air all around the bush.

 

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But to get this close, I still needed to trudge through the surrounding groundcover.  These flowers demand to be honored and appreciated as closely as you can handle!

 

Soon: the "sniffing platform" I mentioned way back on October 21, when this remarkable bush was still just in bud.

 

 

Here's how to grow this elegant and deliciously-fragrant evergreen:


Latin Name

Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Fastigiata'

Common Name

Upright Holly Osmanthus

Family

Oleaceae, the Olive family.

What kind of plant is it?

Evergreen shrub.

Hardiness

Zones 6 (with some forethought and protection) - 9.

Habit

Well-foliaged and broadly-upright shrub.

Rate of Growth

Medium.

Size in ten years

To six feet tall and four feet wide—but my nine-year-old is already that big and doesn't seem to be slowing down at all.

Texture

Much looser and more open than, say, Osmanthus 'Goshiki' or 'Ogon'.  A nice balance of plentiful foliage—which is smallish, deep green, and very pointy (but not bloodthirstily thorny)—and visible branches.

Grown for

its handsome foliage, which, indeed, is so holly-like.  The best way to tell Osmanthus and holly apart is to remember that Osmanthus leaves are opposite, i.e., in pairs, with each leaf directly opposite the other.  Holly —think English holly, Ilex aquifolium—has leaves that alternate up the stems.  Osmanthus : opposite / Ilex aquifolium : alternate.  In Zone 7 and souther, where Osmanthus is quick-growing and easy to establish, it is justifiably popular for evergreen hedges. 

 

'Fastigiata' foliage is typical of the hardy osmanthus, in that it's much smaller (and, therefore, somehow, hardier) than the leaves of the more tender varieties, which can be as big as beech leaves.  It's prickly but not painful.  "Heterophyllus" means, in this case, that the leaves can vary a whole lot in how spiny and notched they are.  Now you know. 

 

its upright branching, which makes the bush all the easier to plant as a hedge, either tight and pruned or loose and natural.  (See "How to Handle It" below.)  It's also effective solo, as a specimen. 

 

the small but sweetly-fragrant flowers that, even better, are surprisingly "out of season," in the Fall.

Flowering season

Fall here in Rhode Island: October, when the last thing one might expect is fresh, sweet fragrance in the garden.

Culture

Easy where it's fully hardy!  Full sun to part shade in average to rich soil with good drainage in the Winter.  At the cold end of the hardiness range—the bottom of Zone 7 down into Zone 6—the site needs to be more advantageously sheltered from Winter wind.  Full sun is better up North, too, which helps each season's growth to ripen as much as possible in Summer and Fall, which, in turn, helps it better withstand the stresses of the coming Winter.  Larger individuals are hardier than youngsters, so buy the biggest you can.

How to handle it

Osmanthus are serviceable "foundation" shrubs in Zones 7 - 9; just plant and then, because you inevitably didn't allow enough room, prune.  Osmanthus accept pruning well, too, so make great hedges. 

 

Zone 7 into Zone 6, any holly osmanthus is somewhat of an achievement, and needs planting (see Culture, above) in focal locations so that you and your garden visitors can be justly proud.  It's a help, as well, to locate the bush fairly near a pathway (but still with helpful shelter of neighboring structures, fences, or evergreens) so everyone can get their noses right up to the flowers, which are so small (again, like holly) that only their powerful fragrance announces their presence from any distance.  (True holly flowers, though, aren't noticeably fragrant; they're also in Spring, not Fall.)  Siting near a pathway also helps everyone realize that this isn't, after all, just another upright holly, of which there are a number (i.e., the I. meservae cultivars) that are much hardier, more popular, and, therefore, proportionately less interesting.  

 

It's worth it to spray such "focal" osmanthus with anti-dessicant in the Fall, so they look all the better in May despite the trials of January through March.  On the other hand, by the time the flowers happen in Fall, the bushes will have (here's hoping) long-since recovered from the previous Winter's tip die-back and burned foliage. 

Downsides

If only they were a bit hardier.

Variants

Ah, the osmanthus.  So many to yearn for, not least because so many species aren't hardy at all below Zone 7.  South of the Potomac River, osmanthus are increasingly popular, i.e., not "Uncommon & Astonishing" at all.  But East of the Hudson River?  Notable, indeed.   

 

O. heterophyllus is the hardiest species, but there's a clutch of desirables even there.  Far as I can tell, 'Ogon' is the same as 'Aureus'; ogon is Japanese for gold.  'Goshiki' has speckled foliage that, when young, is somewhat pinkish, too; it seems fully hardy in Zone 6.  The young foliage of 'Purpureus' is so dark and shiny it seems dipped in tar; I'm still trying to establish it.  'Gulftide' is green-leaved but reputedly hardier than the species; you can't prove it by me, though.  'Nana' is green-leaved but compact; each of my trio of nanas is threatening to top two feet, but only just.  It seems fully hardy in Zone 6.  'Sasaba' has small, deeply-incised green leaves that, unlike the rest of the "holly" osmanthus, are armed with spines so rigid and sharp they are guaranteed to draw blood.  Of course, I must have it.

Availability

On-line.

Propagation

Cuttings and grafting.

Native habitat

Eastern Asia and Southern Japan

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