Powerful perfume attracts city flower status

An 'extremely powerful apricot fragrance', according to Missouri Botanical Garden's Plant Finder website. 'Exceptionally fragrant flowers' writes Roger Spencer in his Horticultural Flora of South-eastern Australia. And an 'incredible smell of ripe apricots' says Sophie Thomson on Gardening Australia.

Apart from the apricot connection this is exactly what you would expect from a tree whose botanical name translates roughly as the 'fragrant perfume-flower'. We are talking about Osmanthus fragrans, the Sweet or Fragrant Olive, and related species.

Back in 2010, when I reported on my first experiences eating the flowers (and algae) of China, I mentioned Osmanthus as a flavouring for 'soups, desserts or what is called Osmanthus wine'. On my most recent trip to country, in October this year, I didn't detect any Osmanthus-flavoured foods but it was hard to miss the perfume and colour of their flowers in the streets of Chongqing.

While the Missouri Botanical Garden write-up says the flowers are 'not particularly showy', they are not unattractive and they are clearly visible. Apart from the Chinese Flame-tree (Koelreuteria bipinnata), which I'll return to in a later post, it was one of the few street trees expressing a splash of colour in October.

I expect the Osmanthus was at the end of its flowering season, and the pollinating insects had mostly done their work because while I was there the temperature dropped dramatically. They say there is no autumn in Chongqing and when I was there at the start of October we had a switch overnight (9-10 October) from hot and sunny low-30s, to rain and a maximum of 15 degrees.

In Melbourne (Australia) the weather would oscillate between these two extremes for a few weeks, or even months, and sometimes within a day. In Chongqing, I gather that was it. 'Winter' had arrived. 

So I saw the white and orange coloured forms of Osmanthus in sunshine and rain, summer and winter, streets and parks. You'll also find them near temples and in plenty of gardens from Chongqing to Chadstone (in Australia).

As the common  names imply, this is a relative of the Olive (Olea). The family Oleaceae has 29 genera, mostly from Asia but with some from Australia (e.g. Notelaea) and quite a few grown in our gardens, such as Ligustrum and Syringa.

We have five of the 35 species of Osmanthus growing in Melbourne Gardens, plus Osmanthus x fortunei, a hybrid bred in Japan between the commonly grown Osmanthus fragrans and Osmanthus heterophyllus

The trees I photographed in the Chongqing streets are most likely - he says consulting his trusty Horticultural Flora of South-eastern Australia (soon to be available on-line!) - Osmanthus fragrans. The orange flowered ones are I think the same species, but a form called aurtantiacus, which means 'orange coloured'. 

Those who know the genus better may correct me but with relatively large leaves, mostly entire edges but when toothed, very finely so, this seems a reasonable fit.

I understand Osmanthus fragrans is the 'city flower' - a concept I wish we could adopt (uniformly) in Australia - of Guilin (south of Chongqing) and a couple of cities near to Shanghai. Chongqing has the camellia I think. What would we chose for Melbourne?


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SUE said…
hello ~ i was wondering where you'd had stumbled Osmanthus Fragrans in Melbourne, are they in any of the gardens?
Talking Plants said…
Hi Sue, Yes we have a few different species in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. It's also grown in some home gardens but I haven't seen any recently. Tim