As Southern as Sweet Tea (Olive)

The Southern Urban Homestead is a feast for the senses — a sweet, ripe strawberry on the tongue, the chickens cooing and cackling from the backyard, the warm crumble of finished compost and red wrigglers spilling through fingers, the visual banquet of abundance. And aroma.

For the past week and a half, the tea olives have been in bloom. I wish there were some way to capture the intoxicating fragrance coming in through my kitchen windows and post it to this blog. The tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans) is an exclusively Southern (though originally Chinese, I think) evergreen shrub with dark, waxy leaves. The blossoms are tiny and light yellow, and they grow in dense bunches nestled behind the foliage. They bloom in the fall but also sometimes in the winter if the weather is mild for a stretch.

And oh, those blooms. Have you ever tasted real Tupelo honey? Start there. Add a hint of orange blossom (not orange flavor, but the scent of the bloom). Then add a forkful of buttercream icing as the aroma hits the back of your throat from a piece of homemade three-layer vanilla cake made just that morning. Close your eyes and think words like “apricot” and “succulent.” And maybe you’ll begin to imagine the scent of the tea olive.

Over this past weekend my friend Beth, who grew up in Chicago and now lives near Boston, came to visit. Beth had never met the tea olive. She was recovering from a cold and couldn’t smell it in the kitchen like I could. So we went outside, and I pointed to the tea olive and said, “Go over there and inhale.” After that, every few hours she would go and stand next to the tea olive and breathe. Finally I brought a few branches inside and put them in a jar on the table next to her. We were pretty much delirious with tea olive. In fact, so is my whole neighborhood. Folks would stand still in a state of euphoria whenever the breeze stirred the scent into their paths.

Beth took a sprig home with her Monday morning (I’m sure that was interesting to the TSA people). I like to think of her wafting the fragrance of tea olive all around Wellesley for the past two days.

I have read that it is possible to make an actual tea from the tea olive blossoms, but I have never tried this nor have I tasted tea olive tea. Any reports, dear readers? I’d love to have this aroma steaming from a teapot.

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1 Comment

Filed under Gardening

One response to “As Southern as Sweet Tea (Olive)

  1. Well, it was fragrant for two more days after it got back to the Boston area, and a little bit of the third if I stuck my face right in it. Which, of course, I did.

    Amazing. And my spouse fell in love with the scent too. There’s nothing like it (but your description is far closer than I could’ve come up with). Try tea, or jam, or something — there has to be a way to share it.

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