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Shrub or small tree 2–12(–18) m. Branchlets brown and glabrous. Leaves evergreen and leathery, 7–14.5 × 2.6–4.5 cm, elliptic to almost lanceolate, glabrous, secondary veins 6–8(–10), margins entire or serrate in the upper half, apex acuminate; petiole 0.8–1.2 cm long. Inflorescences cymose, in axillary fascicles. Flowers white, yellow or orange, fragrant, pedicel 0.4–1 cm long; calyx 0.1 cm diameter; corolla tubular, divided almost to the base, 0.3–0.4 cm diameter. Fruit ellipsoid and purplish black, 1–1.5 cm diameter. Flowering September to October, fruiting March (China). Green 1958, Chang et al. 1996. Distribution BANGLADESH; BHUTAN; CAMBODIA; CHINA; INDIA: Himalaya from Kashmir to Sikkim and Assam; JAPAN; MYANMAR; NEPAL; PAKISTAN; TAIWAN; THAILAND. Osmanthus fragrans is widely cultivated and its natural distribution is uncertain. Habitat Lowland evergreen forest. USDA Hardiness Zone 7–8. Conservation status Not evaluated. Illustration Chang et al. 1996; NT2, NT542, NT543. Cross-references B58, K337. Taxonomic note Osmanthus fragrans has long been cultivated in eastern Asia (Green 1958). Considerable variation in morphology, particularly flower colour, has been noted in cultivated material, and numerous subspecies and forms have been described. However, these taxa warrant recognition only as cultivars (Chang et al. 1996).
In his brief note on it Bean (1976b) said that Osmanthus fragrans is too tender for outdoor cultivation in the British Isles. It is probably still true to say that it is too tender for general cultivation here, but given a warm site it is not a hopeless case, and is worth the attempt on account of its superb fragrance which ‘once encountered, is never forgotten: it is full of tropical overtones, especially on a warm evening’ (Hudson 2004). Dirr (1998) proclaims ‘not to try the plant is to cheat one’s garden’, giving it a Hardiness Zone rating of 7–10. It is clear, however, that it does need summer heat to thrive, and winters that are not too cold. This combination of requirements means that it will tend to be more shrubby than tree-forming in most of our area, but in suitable conditions it can form a sizeable tree. In most of northern Europe this is unlikely, although Owen Johnson measured a specimen of 6 m at Tregothnan, Cornwall in 2006 (TROBI). The flowers, which may be white to orange in different cultivars, are visually rather insignificant. They are principally produced in autumn, but may appear through the winter and into spring. Even when they are not present the large glossy evergreen leaves are handsome. Numerous cultivars have been selected in Asia (Green 1958), and some are available in our area. Dirr (1998) lists several and recommends the clone known as var. semperflorens for its hardiness and more or less continual flowering; ‘Fudingzhu’ has similar qualities. The name f. aurantiacus (Mak.) P.S. Green appears to be attached in cultivation to a single clone with pale orange flowers, but presumably embraces all yellow- and orange-flowered forms.