Every year, a few weeks before the first freeze signals the beginning of winter, two plants burst into bloom in the Mary Snoddy garden. The mingled smells of ginger lilies and tea olives float on the air, making my autumn clean-up chores pleasant.
Ginger lily, Hedychium coronarium, can reach six feet in height, with large leaves and cornstalk-like trunks. These plants are perennial in zones 7-10 and can be grown in containers in colder zones if overwintered in a garage or greenhouse. The fat rhizomes look like giant Iris or Canna roots. Ginger lilies will tolerate some shade but bloom best in full sun. It took me years and several relocations to learn that they require abundant water to thrive. On the last transplant, I moved them to the area where our air conditioner condensation dumps, keeping the soil permanently damp. The combination of full sun and plentiful water made happy plants that bloom profusely and reproduce enough rhizome offshoots for me to divide and share every few years. These coarse plants don’t attract attention until they come into bloom. Then the clean, delicate fragrance cause heads to whip around as people search for the source. The multi-part blooms open on the outside first, progressing to the innermost buds. Each bloom cluster can last two weeks or more. The only downside of the large bloom is that spent portions of the racemes remain attached and can look messy. All top growth should be removed after it is freeze-killed. This chore can be done any time before new growth emerges in the spring.
Tea Olive, Osmanthus, can easily be mistaken for a holly. The easy way to tell the difference is that Osmanthus leaves appear opposite on the stem, whereas Ilex (holly) leaves are alternate. Remembering that Osmanthus and opposite both start with the letter “O” is a good memory tool.
Osmanthus fragrans has smooth edged leaves. Osmanthus fortunei (“Fortune’s tea olive”) has smaller leaves than fragrans, with pronounced serration to their edges. Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’ has lovely variegated leaves but does not bloom as plentifully as the first two. Any of these can be sheared into formal shapes, but I prefer to allow the shrub to assume its natural, loose haystack form.
Don’t expect to be impressed by the blooms, which are quite small but produce a powerful fragrance. Most flowers are white, but an orange version is also available. My favorite is Osmanthus fortunei ‘Fruitlandii.’
Tea olives are drought tolerant once established. They will grow in sun or shade, in zones 7-10, and prefer acidic soil. They are evergreen, grow to a height and width of 15-20 feet, and make a fabulous hedge. As an added bonus, the leathery, deep-green leaves last a long time when cut for flower arrangements. Best of all, they are quite deer resistant.