Sweet Osmanthus is a shrub to small tree originating in the region extending from the foothills of the Himalayas to southern China, where it has long been cultivated for its sweetly fragrant flowers, these being used to make high-end perfumes, as well as to flavour teas and cakes.
It may reach heights of up to 12 m (40 ft), though is more commonly 3 to 5 m (10 to 16 ft) tall with a short trunk supporting a densely leafy rounded crown. The bark is light grey and rough.
Leaves elongated-oval, 5 to 10 cm (2 to 4 in) long, bronze when young, become glossy green when mature and have smooth or finely toothed margins. They are arranged opposite or sub-opposite along the ends of the branches and remain on the plant throughout the year.
Flowers small, four-petaled, fleshy, creamy-white or less commonly orange. They are held in rounded clusters arising at the leaf bases and with female and male flowers on separate plants. Flowering is at its fullest in autumn and spring, with light, intermittent flowering occurring at other times. They give off a strong and sweetly fragrant scent, suggestive of ripe apricots and pineapple.
The fertilized flowers on female plants are followed by small oval fruit up to 1.5 cm (0.6 in) long, green when young, becoming dark purple to black when ripe, with fleshy pulp surrounding a single seed.
Its low-branching habit lends to it being cultivated as a hedge or privacy screen, but it is more usually left untrimmed as a shrub or small tree, so as to let the sweetly fragrant flowers bloom and perfume the garden.
The flowers yield a sweetly fragrant, jasmine-like essential oil used in high-end perfumes of the oriental type, including, 'Cerutti', 'Ciao', 'Eau d'Issey', 'Mille', 'Nino and 'Red'. A delicate oil, it must be extracted from the flowers using a solvent, usually petroleum ether. This results in a fragrant wax-like substance known as an essence concrète, which is then washed with alcohol and concentrated into the essential oil. Solvent extraction is a more technical and expensive process than steam distillation but yields a purer oil, commonly referred to as an absolute. It requires about 3,000 kg (6,600 lbs) of flowers to produce 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of absolute.
An extract of the flower is used to scent and flavour teas and cakes in its native China.
The flowers also have insect repellent properties.
In traditional medicine, the flowers are used to relieve coughs and extracts of the root are used in the treatment of dysmenorrhea (menstrual cramps) and rheumatism.
Grows and blooms naturally in humid subtropical and tropical mid- to high-elevation climates, generally areas with annual lows of 8 to 18 °C, annual highs of 19 to 32 °C, annual rainfall of 800 to 4500 mm and a dry season of 7 months or less.
Although Sweet Osmanthus also grows well in tropical climates, and is, as a small tree, shrub or hedge, the plant usually fails to bloom because chilling temperatures are needed to trigger flowering. Generally, Sweet Osmanthus may fail to flower or do so poorly in areas where the average low of the coldest month is above 12 °C (54 °F).
New plants are usually started from cuttings of semi-mature wood. Performs best on well-manured, free-draining clay-loam, loam and sandy-loam soils of a moderately acid to neutral nature, generally with a pH of 5.0 to 7.5 and on sites with partial sun to light shade exposure.
Sweet Osmanthus is widely introduced and cultivated in non-native areas and is listed as a weed in at least one reference publication, but there does not appear to be any record of it anywhere as a serious weed. It is assessed as a low weed risk species for Florida, by the IFAS Assessment of Non-Native Plants in Florida's Natural Areas.
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