In the Garden: Olive and Her Friends

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Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’. Photo: Charles Kidder.

As a kid I was a picky eater, although I was willing to play with my food. One of my favorite playthings was the olive, in particular green olives stuffed with pimientos. I squeezed my victims until the pepper emerged. I have no idea what that was about, but I invite comments from any psychoanalysts.

Today I actually enjoy eating olives, either in solid or liquid form. Olives and their oil that we consume come from the species Olea europaea, one of the approximately 40 species in this genus.  This species grows around the Mediterranean, into much of east and southern Africa, and across parts of Asia as far as southwest China.  There are six subspecies, and one—or perhaps two— of these have been bred into the hundreds of cultivars that are grown for production purposes.

Olives have been cultivated for thousands of years; indeed, some living olive trees are purportedly thousands of years old. In addition to their culinary importance, olives have great cultural significance across many civilizations: extending the olive branch, or anointing someone with oil in the last rites, for example.

The Mediterranean region produces 95% of the world’s olives, and Spain in turn produces a third of that number. Owing to its Mediterranean type of climate, olives are also produced in California. My internet search even revealed an olive farm in south Georgia, near the town of Lakeland. Olive trees like mild winters but don’t really want or need a lot of rain in the summer, so the Georgia location is surprising.  The fruits of these trees are milled for their oil, the fate of approximately 90% of the world’s olives.

Can you grow an olive tree in Albemarle County? Probably not. There are many other members of the olive family (Oleaceae) that you can grow, or in fact may already be growing. The family includes many familiar genera, such as forsythia, lilac, and ash, as well as some less-familiar plants.

Easily accused of being over-used, it’s hard to imagine early spring without the forsythias (Forsythia species and hybrids). Forsythia x intermedia, a hybrid available in more than 40 cultivars, is known for its bright gold color. If you look closely in late fall, you may even notice some decent burgundy coloration. Weeping forsythia (F. suspensa var. sieboldii) is more of a cascading plant, with somewhat smaller, less-bright flowers. All the forsythias can profit from being worked in among other plants in a bed, rather than being stuck out in the middle of your lawn, although you will have to prune to maintain their spread.

Lilacs (Syringa species) are another well-known garden staple, although more so up north. Some of us northern transplants might recall the wonderful scent from a lilac bush in our parents’ or grandparents’ yard. The Common Lilac (S. vulgaris) has the best fragrance of all the species, but unfortunately is beset with problems, especially in the South. One of the better choices for our area is Early Lilac (S. oblata var. dilatata), a reasonably compact shrub with good fragrance. Plus, the reddish-purple fall color is a bonus.  The Cutleaf Lilac (S. laciniata) with small fragrant flowers and unusual lobed foliage is also good in the South.

Ash trees (Fraxinus spp.) are also members of the olive family, and as most of us know, they have been decimated by the Emerald Ash Borer. The closely related American Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) has also been found to be susceptible to the borer, but less so. If you have a native on your property, keep it well-watered and mulched and hope for the best. The Chinese Fringetree (C. retusus) is resistant to the beetle and might be a better choice if you’re in the market. Both species are small trees or large shrubs bearing a cloud of white flowers in spring.

Osmanthus Heterophyllus, False Holly

The genus Osmanthus is one of the most ornamental members of the olive family. Most of the approximately three dozen species are native to Asia, but a couple hail from the southeast U.S. In order to confuse us mere gardeners, these American species, along with a few Asian ones, have been recently transferred to the genus Cartrema. (I hate when that happens.) Their common name, Tea Olive, betrays their familial relationships.

Osmanthus can be easily be mistaken for hollies, since leaves on young plants are similarly spiny. A telling difference: Osmanthus leaves are opposite on the stem, just like olives, but holly leaves alternate.  Also, as Osmanthus age, the leaves tend to lose their spininess, at least on upper branches.

Osmanthus flowers typically appear in the fall; being small and white, on many of the species they are not terribly showy, but make up for it with wonderful fragrance. Osmanthus fragrans lives up to its name, and can actually flower from September until April. The variety ‘Aurantiacus’ has orange flowers, but they only appear in the fall.

The Holly Tea Olive (O. heterophyllus) is considered to be “resilient and ironclad” by woody plant guru Michael Dirr. It tolerates sun or shade, but wants good drainage. The variety ‘Goshiki’ has subtly variegated foliage (see photo), but prefers to be in shade. ‘Rotundifolius’ has rounded leaves with no spines and tops out at about five feet.

A hybrid, Fortune’s Osmanthus (O. x fortunei) is considered to be one of the most vigorous species.  It can top out at over 20’—at least in Georgia—but generally stays smaller. Like most Osmanthus, it can be pruned to the desired size. Cut in early spring so that you won’t be removing the buds of the autumn flowers.

Regrettably, one member of the olive family deserves special mention, if only for being one of the most invasive horror shows in the southeast: Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense). Do not plant it. One possible exception: the yellow-foliaged variety ‘Sunshine’. Allegedly, this plant does not flower, so it should not be a problem. But if you ever see a flower on it, it’s reverting to the species. Please rip it up and throw it away. 

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