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Sweet Olive

To fully appreciate sweet olive, a scratch and sniff option will need to be added to this page.

I am enamored of wildflowers.

I think gardeners should use more native plants.

But… I’m not a purist.  For me, scent trumps intent.

I am a sniffer.  I follow my nose around like a hound dog.   I am so obsessed with fragrant flowers that I once created a “Fragrance Garden”.

At my place this time of year, when I walk outside (or even past an open window) and take a deep breath, my olfactory nerves experience a powerful  and pleasant jolt.

The sweet olive fragrance wafts in and asserts itself.  Suddenly sweet olive is my favorite plant ever.

Sweet Olive, tea olive or fragrant olive (Osmanthus fragrans) is no wild flower or native plant.  It hails from Asia and is hardy in the U.S. as far north as zone 7b.

Some think this large evergreen shrub resembles a holly.  It is actually a member of the Olive Family.    In old gardens in Natchez, sweet olive commonly reaches 15′ to 20′.  It is often planted near banana shrub (Michelia figo) so that in spring the two can bloom in harmony.

The powerful flowers are diminutive – barely 1/8″ across.  They would be easy to miss if they did not emit a wonderful fruity fragrance.  The scent is one of my favorite signs of autumn.  However, it will repeat during warm spells in winter and again in spring.

My husband Richard thinks that they smell like a perfectly ripe peach.  I lean toward mango but that’s not quite it either.  I’ve heard it described as being apricot like.

Regardless of the flavor perceived, the scent is prized throughout the world.  In China the flowers are used to make a fragrant tea.  Flowers of the unusual orange form are distilled to make an expensive essential oil that is used in perfumery.

It’s a delightful pervasive fragrance that I follow around my garden this time of year.  The perfume drifts on the wind and I am bathed in it.


 

Patience Is Rewarded

I love the way cowcumber's giant leaves refract the light.

I planted three bigleaf magnolias or cowcumbers  (Magnolia macrophylla) over 20 years ago.

This magnolia is a shade loving understory tree.   I purchased three gallon sized plants and sited them beneath the 100 foot white oak in my back yard.

The magnolias are clearly visible from my deck and for these 20+ years I have admired their giant leaves. They are bright green and up to 3 feet long.

That’s 36 inches long in case you are thinking that I made a typo.  On breezy days they undulate to reveal pale undersides.

I was happy with the foliage display but the years rolled by and my trees did not flower.

Cowcumber flowers are a foot across and intensely fragrant.

And while the foliage is quite spectacular, the flower are stunning as well.  They are cup shaped and about a foot across.  They are usually tinted pink or purple toward the center and are intensely fragrant.

Tiny beetle pollinators are drawn by the scent.  They bumble around in the flower intoxicated by the aroma and abundance of pollen and nectar.  Due to their clumsy revelling, a fruit forms that first resembles a cucumber and later a red seeded cone.

Since I know about plant propagation, I was pretty sure that I was getting no flowers because the trees were seed grown.  Seedlings of woody plants have to grow for many years before they begin to accumulate flowering hormones.  Whereas a cutting will usually have some of the hormone from the parent plant to jump start the process and will flower much earlier in life.

Even though I knew the reason, I was beginning to be impatient after 20 years.  Finally this year, all three of the cowcumbers bore a full canopy of flowers.

Needles to say, I am ecstatic.

It reminds me of my youth.  In college I studied Magnolia macrophylla in my Plant Materials class.  My teacher, Lester Estes, had shown us a small 6′ specimen on the Mississippi State University Campus.  He told us that the tree would get over 50 feet tall and described the bold fragrant flowers.  Soon after, I went camping with a pack of my plant pals in Northern Alabama at Bankhead National Forest.  It was spring and the most wonderful scent permeated the air.  We all wandered around following our noses and inhaling the aroma.  Finally someone looked up at a smooth barked behemoth tree with giant leaves and said “Wait a minute – is that a …?”  “Bigleaf Magnolia” we all chorused.

So now, my own trees, which have not quite attained behemoth status, are in bloom in my own back yard.  The scent is intoxicating but the time travel back to my youth is priceless.


 

Texas Star

Aletris admires the artful arrangement of Texas Star and petrified wood in the Loos garden near Chireno, Texas.

Recently as I drove across Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, the most common roadside daffodil I encountered was the Texas Star.

The Texas Star (a.k.a. Narcissus x intermedius) is one of those ancient natural crosses.  It is the offspring of Little Sweetie (N. jonquilla) and the bunch daffodil (N. tazetta).  According to Scott Ogden’s Garden Bulbs for the South, this natural hybrid exists not only in gardens but has been found by botanists “growing naturally in France, near Bayonne, in the foothills of the Pyrenees… still a wildflower….”

Ogden describes Texas Star as “strange looking sulfury jonquils (with) homely crimped blossoms that sit on short stems which keep the flowers partly hidden in the foliage…”   This unflattering but accurate description implies that the Texas Star is not one of Scott’s favorites.

I, on the other hand, have a great deal of admiration for the Texas Star.

I would disagree with the word “homely”.  Instead of “crimped”, I would describe the petals as undulating or ruffled.  I would also argue that as the flowers mature, the stems seem to elongate until they are no longer hidden in the foliage.

Texas Star is a favorite choice for my vases this time of year.

I do know that as I was whizzing past the huge stands of Texas Star along I-20, the flowers were quite striking and did not seem to be hidden in the foliage at all.

I think part of my admiration for Texas Star has to do with its toughness, durability and adaptability.

It grows in heavy clay or well drained sand.  It seems to prefer alkaline soil but thrives in acid pH as well.  It survives untended at abandoned house sites,  in large drifts along the interstate and in roadside ditches.

In my own garden, I like to pause and pick a stem just to savor the fragrance.  The scent is sharply pungent, a delightful genetic mingling of the two parents.

I enjoy wandering through my garden, gathering flowers for my vases.   Sometimes my path is visually directed – from one bright color to the next complementary hue.

On other days, I follow my nose like a hound dog – sniffing and gathering.   On such occasions this time of year, the Texas Star always ends up in my bouquet.

Little Sweeties

The intensely fragrant Little Sweetie is about the size of a dime.

The intensely fragrant Little Sweetie blossom is about the size of a dime.

Quite a few years ago, I was visiting my friends Bill and Lydia Fontenot in Louisiana about this time of year.  As we were taking a garden stroll, Bill picked a cute tiny golden jonquil, handed it to me and said something like “Check this out.”

As I closely examined the blossom, the sweetest scent ever drifted from the tiny jonquil cup and gave my olfactory nerves a pleasant jolt.   My happy brain sent a signal to my mouth which morphed into a silly grin.  I proceeded to sniff the little flower again and again.  I was having my first somewhat euphoric experience with a wild jonquil or Little Sweetie (Narcissus jonquilla).  

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word Narcissus is derived from a Greek word meaning “numbness, in ref. to the narcotic effects….”  Some would argue that the name was bestowed due to the poisonous nature of all narcissus bulbs.  I believe that the enticing floral scent of Little Sweeties have an almost narcotic quality as well.

This wild narcissus originated in damp grassy meadows in Spain and Portugal.  Little Sweeties are also widely naturalized in the state of Louisiana and can be found during chance encounters in other southern states.   All the varieties in the American Daffodil Society Division 7 have Narcissus jonquilla in their ancestry.  Little Sweeties are even one of the parents of my childhood favorite, the Campernelle jonquil.

It is amazing that such a powerful scent can be emitted by such a small flower.  The individual flowers of Little Sweetie are about the size of a dime.  They have a waxy sheen are arranged in small open clusters.

The leaves are blight emerald green, slender and rush-like.   They are in perfect scale with the diminutive flowers.  I’ve heard that Little Sweeties and their kin are called jonquils due to a corruption of the word Juncus which is the genus name for the rushes.

As soon as I discovered Little Sweeties, I had to have them in my own garden.  I began a serious quest and now have forms from Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas.

Last spring I sighted the first Little Sweeties I had ever seen in my North Mississippi hometown  I coerced my friend Bob into helping me pilfer some of them from the roadside.  I have also mail ordered an early and a late blooming strain.  Because, you see, I have to have my fix for as long as possible in the spring!

 

Oh So Sweet Daphne

I like to bring budded Daphne into the house so it can open and release its lucious perfume indoors.

I like to bring budded Daphe stems indoors to open and perfume my house.


 

Walk out the any door of my house, pause for a minute and take a deep breath.   I guarantee that a sweet fragrance will waft in on the next breeze.  It smells a bit like honeysuckle only less cloying and verrrry pleasant.    Breathe in again and you will immediately contract a serious case of Spring Fever.

The source of this delightful scent is sweet Daphne (Daphne odora).   The Daphnes have been blooming in my garden for a couple of weeks now.  I have one in my front yard and one in my back yard.  These two are enough to supply wall to wall fragrance from late January until early March.

Sweet or Winter Daphne is an Asian evergreen shrub.  It is very easy to propagate from June cuttings but very difficult to find in the nursery trade.  The reason, I think, is that for some reason this wonderful shrub has an undeserved reputation of being difficult to grow.

I’ve found it to be quite easy if soil is well drained and plants are shaded from intense afternoon sun.   On the plus side, that seems to be all of the cultural requirements.  Daphne is extremely drought tolerant.  It needs little or no fertilizer and it will thrive in terrible soils as long as drainage is not an issue.

After blooming, sweet Daphne fills the bill as one of those perfect little green meatballs that so many gardeners love.  It maintains this symmetrical form with little or no pruning and with great age attains a height of about 3′ with a spread up to 4′.   In other words, it is shaped like a beautiful little ottoman.

Sweet Daphne is often listed as short lived.  That usually means you have 10 good years or so before the plant succumbs to Southern blight or some other wilt disease.   I try to make sure plants have good drainage and avoid over fertilizing with nitrogen so that my Daphnes can survive as long as possible.   If a Daphne succumbs to a wilt disease, another one should not be replanted in the same spot because the fungus that causes southern blight is probably lurking in the dirt.

I lost my Mama Plant when she was about 10 years old.  After an interval of mourning, I planted a couple of young Daphnes in other parts of my landscape.  They’ve been focal points in my winter garden for 6 or 7 years now.   They greet me on dreary winter days every time I step onto my porch and take a breath.   Their sweetness reminds me that spring is waiting in the wings.  That, my friends, is priceless.

The Sweet Story of the Lent Lily

I was delighted to find the first Lent lily of the year blooming in my garden on Valentine's Day.


 

Since I vowed to document the daffodils in my garden, I’ve been stalking budded clumps with my camera -watching eagerly for a photo op.

Due to the snow, the dafs seem to be running a tad late.  Today, finally, one plump bud on the Lent lily (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) in my front yard opened.

Lent lilies are so named because they begin blooming around Ash Wednesday which is the first day of Lent.  In Mississippi, we call this early blooming daffodil a buttercup or incorrectly a ‘King Alfred’ daffodil.   Elsewhere they are known as trumpet daffodils.  No matter what you call them, Lent lilies are among the most common naturalized daffodils in the Deep South.

These beautiful spring wildlings are native to Spain and Portugal.  Their range extends to Germany and north to England and Wales.  They are the national flower of Wales and were documented in English gardens prior to 1200.  Wordsworth admired them in the English Lake District and immortalized them in his poem “Daffodils”.  They migrated to the New World with the settlers and were ensconced in Colonial gardens by the early 1700’s.

In Mississippi, they still colonize abandoned house sites, old fields and even kudzu patches.  They can co-exist with kudzu because kudzu grows during warm weather and defoliates before the daffodils emerge in mid-winter.  The dafs bloom and die back in April – just in time for the kudzu to crank up again.

Lent lilies have a drooping golden trumpet and paler yellow petals that point forward. This enables the few stalwart pollinators that are out and about to seek shelter inside the nodding trumpet in case of inclement weather.

If you live in the South and have the privilege of driving rural roads, keep your eyes open and you will probably see Lent lilies around old house sites.  Then you can decide whether to admire them for their historical significance, their ability to persist (even in a kudzu patch) or for their sweet disposition (and scent).

They are so sweet that they even qualify as a subject for a Valentine’s Day post!

Carpe diem???

A vase of Japanese apricot branches enhances and perfumes the bathroom.

Today it was chilly and very humid.  I set about to work my way down a list full of errands and chores.  When I had almost finished the task-list, I realized that I had yet to clean house or work on a landscape drawing that has been on my board for far too long.

So… I took the dogs for a walk, picked a few greens for a stir fry and began gathering branches of Japanese apricot (Prunus mume ‘Peggy Clarke’) for my vases.

I realize that most people clean the house and then add a flower arrangement as a finishing touch.  I, on the other hand, make flower arrangements to avoid cleaning the house.

When all was said and done, I had a wall vase full of mume over the kitchen sink and a large exuberant bunch of mume in a tall vase on my bar.  And last, but not least, a tasteful and graceful vase full of mume on my toilet!

Some might say that I went a little overboard with the mume.   But I know from experience that the flowers are as ephemeral as they are beautiful.  Every year, when the last blossoms have shattered and the ground is confettied with pink petals, I regret that I did not spend more quality time amongst the mume.

So today I’ll be contented that the faint fragrance of mume is drifting through my house and that at least I cleaned the air.

More Mume Please

Japanese apricot is my favorite small tree. It smells wonderful.

It’s nasty – rainy and cold today.

I took care of household chores but I kept looking out the window at my Japanese apricot (Prunus mume ‘Peggy Clarke’).  This lovely small tree is at my rental house next door.  It is about 15′  tall and in full bloom right now.  On a warm day, the sweet cinnamon scent of the flowers wafts through the garden.

Many of the cherry relatives are short lived and kind of wimpy.  The Japanese apricot seems tougher than the norm.  My oldest tree was broken and maimed during Hurricane Katrina.   After pruning off the most damaged growth, only a short trunk and scaffold branch stubs were left.  I decided to cut it down but when the time came, I just couldn’t do it.  So I let nature take its course.  The tree has now recovered beautifully and is also about 15′ tall.

It may be rainy and nasty but I’m grateful that my vases are full of mume.

A Lovely Walk

Wintersweet

Wintersweet in bloom - January 2010

It was a beautiful January day – foggy early and then sunny all afternoon.   It was warm enough that Baby Cakes, my cat, was sunning on the back deck.

Inspired by Cakester, I shucked off my jacket and took the dogs for a walk.

Along the way, I found many things to admire.  I stopped beside the recently thinned black bamboo grove to stroke the svelte trunk of my Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica).  The leatherleaf mahonia was blooming in the backyard and the wintersweet at the edge of the woods.   As I walked, the dogs ran amok and the frogs sang a rowdy chorus.  It was a fine walk!

I spent a good bit of time studying the wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox).  I read about it in Elizabeth Lawrence’s books and she made it sound really grand. The shrub itself is from China but is closely related to our native sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus). I tried several plants before I got one to survive and then it took a few years for my tiny mail order plant to bloom.  The flowers have a strange waxy sheen and an odd color mix of straw and maroon.  They do smell good but not as wonderful as I had imagined.   Miss Lawrence says that there are superior varieties that have larger or more fragrant flowers.  Perhaps I should seek one of those.

Mine is obviously an inferior form since it does not “perfume a whole room” as Miss Lawrence promised.  Still – I am glad to have it.   I have a great respect for flowers that bloom in winter and want to collect them all.

In winter there are so few insects out that many flowers make sure they are noticed by emitting an intense fragrance.  As I was editing my wintersweet picture, I thought I noticed a small bee nestled inside the flower.  I zoomed to actual pixels and sure enough, there she was!

I’ll end this post with one of my favorite Elizabeth Lawrence quotes.  It is the introductory paragraph of Gardens in Winter.

“I never did care for fair-weather gardeners. Standing behind glass doors, they look out at the cold ground and leafless branches and exclaim,  ‘How beautiful this must be in spring!’  How beautiful it is now,  I want to cry….”

To that I will only add “Ditto”.

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