The flowers of the sweet olive, which are borne in fall, early spring and sometimes mild winters, are small and a creamy white, but their perfume is powerful, one of the most distinctive of garden fragrances (and one of my all time favorites). Originally from China, the sweet olive has been cultivated in temple and home gardens there for so long that its origins are uncertain. Following the usual route west, sweet olives were brought to England in 1771, and from there to America. This plant forms a shrub or small tree, and can reach a height of fifteen feet (or even more in old gardens of the deep South). Its evergreen foliage and dense form make this plant valuable as a specimen, hedge, or mass.
Propagation is by cuttings and thankfully these popular plants are available in the nursery trade. Sweet olives prefer moist, deep, acidic soils but they adapt fairly well to less favorable growing conditions. An orange flowering form, known as the variety aurantiacus, is sometimes found in Southern gardens but only blooms once per year.
Records from Rosedown Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana show that its owner, Martha Turnbull, purchased three “Chinese fragrant olives (used to scent their tea)” from the New York nursery William Prince and Son in 1836. Today the scent of huge descen¬dants from those plants permeates the entire garden during the fall and early spring. Fittingly, giant ones also perfume the Grace Episcopal cemetery in St. Francisville, where she is buried. Heaven scent.
Most of the older catalogues list sweet olive as Olea fragrans. Affleck’s Central Nurseries, near Brenham, Texas, offered it in the 1860 price list. Fruitlands Nurseries, Augusta, Georgia in their 1906–07 catalog offered the following: “Olea fragrans (Tea, or Sweet Olive). One of the most desirable flowering shrubs of Southern gardens. The white flowers, although small, are produced in clusters and emit the most pleasing fragrance.
It is well said that ‘each individual bloom has more sweetness than the most fragrant lily.’
As a conservatory shrub for northern florists it will be found invaluable and of ready sale. The blooming period begins in the fall and lasts for several months. It is of easy culture and especially desirable as a window plant.”
According to my friend and former boss, Dr. Dave Creech at SFA Gardens, over ten Chinese cities honor the plant (one of the ten traditional flowers of China) with a wide variety of special holidays each October when they bloom in profusion.
The most ancient sweet olive in China is on the grounds of the Shengshui Temple in Shannxi Provice and is over 2100 years old!
Greg Grant is the Smith County horticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. He is author of Texas Fruit and Vegetable Gardening, Heirloom Gardening in the South, and The Rose Rustlers. You can read his “Greg’s Ramblings” blog at arborgate.com, read his “In Greg’s Garden” in each issue of Texas Gardener magazine (texasgardener.com), and follow him on Facebook at “Greg Grant Gardens.” More science-based lawn and gardening information from the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service can be found at aggieturf.tamu.edu and aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu.