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Sweet olive will need to be watered about once a week

October 4, 2017
The flowers have a distinct fragrance often compared to ripe apricots or peaches.

While it’s best known now for the character Popeye, the Thimble Theatre comic strip’s original leading character was for years not a man but a woman. Not just any woman - no voluptuous curves, no sexy voice, no flowing long hair, no smooth gazelle-like movements. Instead she was a gawky, ungainly, thin-as-a-rail woman with a hairdo that was a perennial bun. Olive Oyl was by far the most popular member of the cast, only to be overshadowed by the corncob pipe-toting Popeye in 1929.

While cartoons offer escape, the modern Olive Oyl can help us drift off to dreamland thanks to the profuse fragrant flowers of evergreen sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans). This charming houseplant is not in Miss Oyl’s family (which included Cole Oyl, Diesel Oyl and the rest) but is part of the larger family, Oleaceae, that includes edible olive trees (Olea europaea). It has glossy leaves and tiny but plentiful white flowers that bloom nonstop from spring through summer. Because of its slow growth and ability to take heavy pruning, it is a near-perfect potted plant. The flowers have a distinct fragrance often compared to ripe apricots or peaches.

Plants are available from local nurseries by special order or from mail order such as Logee's Greenhouses (www.logees.com). Place your plant where it will get full sun, or least sun half of the day. For best results, use a good potting soil enriched with organic matter such as peat moss or compost that drains well. It grows well in almost any soil, and once established is pretty much carefree.

Sweet olive will need to be watered about once a week or whenever the top few inches of soil are dry. In hot weather or if the plants are exposed to winds, you may need to water more often. You only need to prune to remove dead branches or to keep it in shape. Pruning is best done in early spring before it begins its growing season. To encourage a bushier plant, pinch the tips of the stems. While it is generally trouble-free, you can control any disease with a good organic spray.

Besides perfuming a room, the flowers are edible. You can add the flowers to soups, sauces and as an edible garnish. Use both the flowers and the leaves as a tea or add them to your favorite black tea to infuse their delicate apricot scent. Sweet olive blooms are cooked into traditional Chinese moon cakes, which are filled with osmanthus flowers mixed with sesame, walnuts, rose petals and often citrus peel or bean paste. In addition to their use in the kitchen, the dried flowers are widely used in Chinese medicine to treat coughs. The flowers are also used in hair rinses and skin ointments. Sweet olive or Osmanthus flowers are an expensive ingredient in many perfumes, evoking the serene beauty of a Chinese garden with their fruity, yet subtle fragrance.

Pot up your own evergreen sweet olive and enjoy the rich fragrance of fresh osmanthus flowers. You might even use them to scent spinach and capture a clumsy sailor.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.