Holly Tea Olive, A True Christmas Gift

01 Dec Holly Tea Olive, A True Christmas Gift

It’s no secret that over the last decade the “Green Industry”, garden centers and growers, have had their fair share of botanical struggles. Hemlocks have woolly adelgid, oaks have bacterial leaf scorch (BLS) disease, elms have Dutch elm disease and elm bark beetle, impatiens have downy mildew and boxwoods have a whole host of issues, most recently boxwood blight. Boxwood blight has been thrust into the foreground, but let’s not forget mites, leafminer and psyllid… OH MY! Our industry is badly in need of a foundation and screening plant to replace boxwood and new information is hoisting a plant back into the spotlight.

Holly Tea Olive or False Holly, Osmanthus heterophyllus, has not really been a secret in the industry. In fact, the most popular cultivar sold in our part of New Jersey is ‘Goshiki’. A “spectral rainbow with new growth tinged pink and bronze, flecked with gold, maturing gold, cream, and green— all rather pretty when finally settled down” (Dirr’s Trees and Shrubs for Warmer Climates). And while this cultivar has long been on the market, another one has too…. ‘Gulftide’. For the past decade many of us in the industry have been under the assumption that ‘Gulftide’ is a borderline “Hardy” plant. Hardiness refers to a plants’ ability to survive temperature; adverse growing conditions, cold tolerance, heat, drought, wind and flooding are all components defining this. We are a Zone 6b in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey (-5°F to 0°F) which means this is the coldest temperature that plants are able to survive here. Zone 7 is (0°F to 5°F) and is close to our coastline. For years I have seen Osmanthus h. ‘Gulftide’ listed as a Zone 7a plant in catalogues. However, a recent trip to a grower in interior Pennsylvania has redefined ‘Gulftide’s’ hardiness for me. Sitting in a wide open field was a block of False Holly ‘Gulftide’ that have been nestled down there for the past several years. Now at an appreciable and marketable size, 4-5 feet tall, these beauties were ready for sale. And given the fact that they have been in the soil for these past several years, enduring cold and bitter winters, we can all rest assure that they are every bit as hardy for Zone 6b or even colder? Speaking for myself here, this is very exciting. ‘Gulftide’s’ ability to fill a need as a foundation plant and prove itself useful for screening is only part of its charm. What if I told you that it tolerates heavy clay, deep shade and is deer resistant too… it is! With extremely spiny leaves, a lustrous dark green, ‘Gulftide’ can also have intoxicating flowers in the fall followed by small blue-black fruit. All this on a plant that can grow 6-10 feet or more. Capable of growing higher than a basketball hoop, yet taking up only a percentage of the footprint spruce and pine would, this English holly look-alike is more than promising.

Aside from ‘Goshiki’, there are several other fabulous cultivars that are just as useful for smaller foundation plantings. ‘Ogon’ has bright yellow foliage and grows wider than it does tall. A reliable performer in light shade, this evergreen brightens up any tiny, dark nook in the landscape. Do your best to protect it from “blazing sun” and desiccating winds though. ‘Akebono’ may be a bit of a tease and prove to be as elusive to find as the Holy Grail. Complete with mauve colored foliage that matures to white variegation against green through the summer, its glossy leaves continue to mature well into autumn. Another elusive type is ‘Purpureus’. The new shoots on this one are a deep purple-black. A color seldom seen in landscapes, ‘Purpureus’ is well worth the hunt and finishes larger than ‘Akebono,’ between 6 and 10 feet.

A plant ID give away, when identifying False Holly, is its opposite leaves… holly, Ilex, has alternating leaves. No serious insect or disease problems threaten Osmanthus however, should scale or aphids find their way to yours, rest assured there are easy remedies for such. The aforementioned cultivars of Holly Tea Olive are predictable, long lived plants that have often been described as “tough as nails.” Asian in origin, Osmanthus have adapted quite well to New Jersey’s climate and soils. Still proving to be difficult for our wildlife to digest, Holly Tea Olive is truly durable and ‘Gulftide’, I believe, will carry many to “the promised landscape.” Finally, given all that Osmanthus can do, don’t overlook the fact that it also makes for handsome cuttings in your holiday arrangements and wreaths.