Osmanthus: The Scent of Happiness ~ out of the bottle

osmanthus

This is my last post as an official writer for Now Smell This.1 It's been a huge opportunity and a real thrill to write for the blog that first woke me up to perfume, and I will miss my regular gig very much. But I'll see you in the comments section, and I’ll be easy to find, so instead of getting weepy or nostalgic, I simply want to say thank you and offer you a bouquet of osmanthus blossoms.

I admit that, as bouquets go, it isn't much to look at. The flowers, white or yellow, depending on the variety, are simple and very tiny — you could easily hold a hundred in the palm of your hands. The greenery of the variety that grows in the Southern U.S., where osmanthus is widely known as the Tea Olive, is unremarkable. But none of that really matters. This bouquet is not for display, it's a nosegay, and as soon as you bend your head to sniff, your eyes will be closed in bliss.

I think of osmanthus as the scent of happiness. It smells of warm, ripe apricots, good black tea (maybe a Ceylon, with its floral notes and natural sweetness) and soft leather. It's a luscious, velvety scent, rich and delicious, but the sunny, citrus-kissed fruit and the tannic tea notes keep things from getting too serious. Osmanthus isn't a heady narcotic, like jasmine, or a drama queen, like tuberose. Billie Holiday, famous for the gardenias in her hair, would never have worn osmanthus blossoms.

Osmanthus envelops, but it doesn't overwhelm. I bought a scrubby little stick of an osmanthus shrub at the Farmer's Market this February, and it lived in my study for a week before it warmed up enough to put it outside. Every night I closed my study door to keep out our tabbies, and every morning when I opened it again a cloud of scent rolled over me. I may have paused to breathe deeply through my nose for a moment or two before sitting down at my desk, but when I opened my eyes I was fully awake and I settled down to my work with a feeling of expansive contentment.

Like rose petals, osmanthus flowers retain their scent when dried, and they are a popular flavoring in China where osmanthus is known as gui hua. You may already be familiar with osmanthus flavored tea. (And if you aren't, and drink loose tea, may I suggest buying some immediately. You can order a sample here.) But osmanthus can also be used to infuse sugar and custards, the same way that many Western cooks use a vanilla bean, or to lend a delicate note to savory dishes in much the way that we use saffron — another flavoring associated with joy. 

Some time ago, inspired by my adventures with osmanthus sorbet, I bought some dried osmanthus blossoms meaning to try some of the recipes above and the ones offered here and here. As I type this I'm wondering that an osmanthus infusion might do to the glaze meant for a roasted duck. I am thinking of crisp, golden osmanthus butter cookies, flecked with bits of dried flowers, meant to be served alongside a cup of the same kind of tea. And I am imagining, in vivid detail, a lemon polenta cake soaked in an osmanthus honey glaze.

But so far, I've been content to simply sniff the flowers in their little tin, while I think of how each osmanthus-centered perfume I know teases out a different facet of the bloom: Ormonde Jayne's bright, flirty soliflore is all fruit and spring dresses. The Different Company pulls back the sweetness, amps up the citrus and makes the leather chic. Serge Lutens' Daim Blond stews the apricot (no surprise there) and adds a pair of suede gloves. Ineke Ruhland's Evening Edged in Gold pairs the apricot with dark plums, surrounds it with heady white flowers on a summer night and adds a dash of saffron. Parfum d'Empire's super-saturated Osmanthus Interdite stuffs a soft leather purse to brimming with the live blooms. And in Jean Patou's 1000 — I'm wearing a precious dab of the vintage parfum right as I write this — the osmanthus shines out from the heart of the formal composition, welcoming me in to a perfume I might otherwise consider out of my reach.

I love them all. But if my little shrub is any indication, I'm not sure any of them can compare with something I haven't smelled yet: a whole city avenue of mature blooming plants on a warm spring night, the breeze carrying the scent through every open window. It's a nice piece of happiness to dream on — meet me there?

Note: image is Tea Olive [cropped] by WilsonB at flickr; some rights reserved.

1. Ed. note: Alyssa failed to mention that she's leaving us because she wrote a book.

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55 Comments

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  1. victoriaf says:

    I will miss your posts here, but I know that you will continue to share your stories, so no weepy good byes from me. :)

    And as for osmanthus, it is one of my favorite scents. The plant itself seems hardy, and ever since Elise described how to grow it, I’ve been meaning to give it a try. Did I tell you that I managed to grow two orange plants from seed? I think that I might have a bit of a green thumb after all.

    • Alyssa says:

      No! From seed? As in, some random seed from a fruit you ate? After you have made your fame and fortune in the city, V., you can retire to the country and work in your private greenhouse…

      And yes, osmanthus are supposed to be hardy. The description said they “thrive on neglect.” We will see how it does over the hot, dry summer.

      • victoriaf says:

        My Slavic soul yearns for that dacha… :)
        IWhenever I ate an orange, I stuck seeds in a pot. About 10 sprouted, but only two survived. They are 5 years old now, and they are quite big. They even have bark! So proud of my babies.

        • Alyssa says:

          That’s incredible. We used to do that with avocado pits, but none of them actually grew into trees!

  2. JolieFleurs says:

    Well, I’m going to get a bit weepy anyway, as I wish you every possible joy and the best of luck in your new adventure! And many, many thanks for all your wonderful posts!

    Love me some tea olive, though I don’t always recognize it in perfume if it’s with a lot of other notes. I have several bushes of it planted at our place in Arkansas.

    • Alyssa says:

      Awww, thanks! I’ll see you in the comments!

      I think when osmanthus sometimes has the same effect that rose or jasmine does when it’s in the center of a perfume. It ceases to be recognizable as itself, but lends its character to the surrounding notes, smoothing and brightening them. Does that make sense?

      • JolieFleurs says:

        It does indeed make sense, but that’s where my nose fails me! Just not sophisticated enough to realize that’s what’s going on. :)

        • Alyssa says:

          I have a hard time believing you are not sophisticated.

          Early on in my sniffage, I noticed there was a certain warmth I was drawn to in perfumes–I thought if it as a “warm heart.” Later I realized all of those perfumes used rose as a heart note. Suddenly I could smell it! I bet something like that will happen to you with osmanthus. In the meantime, enjoy your plants!

  3. Tara says:

    Good Luck with your book and all you do!! Thank you so much for your wonderful and informative posts. I will miss you and your writing.

  4. Ikat says:

    Oh, we’re going to miss you.

    Memo’s Inle is a huge favorite of mine and Osmanthus is very well represented there.

    • Alyssa says:

      Thank you! And have never tried Inle–or any of the Memo line! Will have to seek both out.

  5. HemlockSillage says:

    I love your writing, and I’m headed to order/preorder your book. I’m sad that you won’t be a regular poster here at NST. I hope if you have other articles published, Robin will alert us. Fragrant blessings to you, with best wishes in your new venture. Be well.

    • Alyssa says:

      Thank you so much for pre-ordering! It’s a huge help and can really make a difference in how the book gets handled.

      There will definitely be more articles, just not my monthly post here on NST!

  6. Rappleyea says:

    I’ve pre-ordered your book, and bookmarked your new blog, so no tears here either. I do want to wish you all of the best in your new endeavors. Such an appropriate day – the Equinox – to announce new beginnings.

    Wonderful post on osmanthus as well. I don’t think I’ve ever smelled the actual blooms, and I must rectify that. I love osmanthus tea though!

    • Alyssa says:

      Thank you so much for pre-ordering and bookmarking, Rapp! It’s comforting to me to think some of the familiar faces here might show up at the new place. :-)

      The live blooms are so worth smelling, Rapp. It’s one of those “Oh, they weren’t just making it up!” things, compared to the perfumes. Where do you live? I didn’t realize it, but osmanthus grows all through the South and apparently there are streets in Houston where one can’t even escape the scent! I am planning to go and find those streets…

      • Rappleyea says:

        I’m in central Ky. – zone 6. Hotter than hades in the summer (not Texas hot, but almost) and can be sub-zero in the winter. Right now we’re 30 degrees above normal! I’ll do some research and see if osmanthus will survive here, but I’m afraid not. Unfortunately, I don’t have any windows that get full sun either!

        • Rappleyea says:

          Oh, and I know what you mean about the scent of the flower vs. perfume. No comparison really.

        • Alyssa says:

          Ah, well. Maybe just keep an eye out when you visit friends and relatives a little further south!

  7. Janice says:

    I just pre-ordered it on Amazon too–can’t wait to read it! Best of luck in your new venture.

    And now, since I read your comment that osmanthus “thrives on neglect,” I’m thinking maybe a shrub would have a fighting chance in my garden…

    • Alyssa says:

      Thank you so much, Janice!

      My little shrub certainly looks tough enough. It makes me like the plant even more, that contrast between its looks and its beautiful scent.

  8. ladymurasaki says:

    Thank you so much for all your contributions and I wish you joy in your in your pursuit. I’ve pre-ordered your book and I’m looking forward to reading it!

    Osmanthus is one of my favourite flowers alongside gardenia, jasmine and tuberose. My family home in Tokyo had an osmanthus bush by the front gate and it offered a warm welcoming scent as you entered the threshold. To me, it represents joy and fulfilment.

  9. Alyssa says:

    Thank you very much for the order and the good wishes.

    “Joy and fulfillment.” That’s perfect. And what a lovely memory. Was that a common thing, the osmanthus by the gate? Or just your family’s good idea? In parts of the U.S. it’s traditional to plant a rosemary bush by the front gate to provide a similar welcome.

    • ladymurasaki says:

      I don’t know if it is common practice in Japan, but my mother had a lot of fragrant flowering plants in the garden. We had cherry trees, a very old gardenia tree that bore huge blossoms, honeysuckle and wisteria to name just a few. The gardenia was such an “attention seeking Queen” of the garden and I used to have to shut my windows at night so that I can sleep in peace. I had a love/hate thing with it! Osmanthus on the other hand has always been my love. So unassuming yet captivating.

  10. poodle says:

    Good luck to you, and don’t be a stranger. I hope you come back and visit in the posts. I’m going to have to check out that book of yours. Gotta get my summer reading ready to go.

    Osmanthus sounds lovely but it probably wouldn’t grow in my neck of the woods. I do sometimes try to grow gardenia as a house plant and I fail miserably every time.

    • Alyssa says:

      I will remain a dedicated NST reader and commenter! (I love that phrase, “Don’t be a stranger.” Also: “Y’all come back, now.”)

      Perfume is a wonderful way to have those smells if you can’t grow the plants!

  11. Krizani says:

    Best wishes, Alyssa!

    Has anyone tried the Hove Tea Olive perfume? They are a small place in New Orleans that’s been around for a long time and they have a devoted following.

    • maggiecat says:

      Their following is devoted for a good reason – they have amazing scents. Their Tea Olive is lovely and comes in soap, shower gel, and body lotion as well as perfume and cologne.

    • Alyssa says:

      Hove is wonderful. I have some of their Louis Quatorze and love it. I hope to visit their New Orleans shop some day soonish–it sounds like a real piece of the city’s history.

      And I do have a Tea Olive sample somewhere. I it received as a gift and it is squirreled away somewhere because I had no idea “tea olive” meant osmanthus at the time and I remember thinking, “Huh. Tea and olives. What a strange idea…” I must go dig it out.

  12. OperaFan says:

    What a nice (i.e., fragrant) parting gift from you, Alyssa – I remember osmanthus flowers from my childhood. They are incredibly beautiful to be near. Will have to revisit Evening Edged in Gold, which I actually think of as a beautiful sandalwood floral scent. Another osmanthus fragrance that I enjoy very much and often overlooked as just a fruity-floral is Nuit de Cellophane.

    Best of luck you you, and thank you for all your contributions on NST!

    • Alyssa says:

      Thank you! And thank you for reminding me why I liked Nuit de Cellophane the first time I smelled it. I should revisit.

      I find there is as much plum as osmanthus in Evening Edged in Gold, but it’s definitely there, lending its quiet sweetnes..

  13. maggiecat says:

    A lovely post to remind us (as if we needed reminding) what a great writer you are! Good luck with your future endeavors and I’ll look forward to seeing your posts here and elsewhere (as well as reading your book!)

  14. MariaFracas says:

    Osmanthus is my very favorite natural scent!!! I live in Hawaii and am also in love with natural white ginger blossoms. I’ve always wondered whether the inability to capture some natural flower fragrances might come from the fact that it’s partly the oxygen given off by the flowers that adds to their unique lightness.
    So precious to find your post about Osmanthus. I will buy your book and think of you whenever walking past my O trees.
    FYI, my other favorite scents: Diorissimo, Fracas, RL’s Blue, JM’s Lime blossom and Nectarine.

    • Alyssa says:

      That’s quite a compliment to osmanthus considering all you have to pick from in Hawaii! I’m so pleased you like the post. (And thanks for ordering!)

      I think it’s difficult to capture live blooms because they are so subtle and complex. They also smell different at different times of day, or depending on humidity, temperature and so on. That’s why soliflore’s, portraits of a single flower, can still be so interesting and varied.

      The closest thing I’ve smelled to live blooms in perfume are old fashioned hydrosols and enfleurage butters. In fact, I am just now working my way to the bottom of a ginger lily hydrosol that was a revelation to me as in — “Oh! THAT’s what they’re trying to do when they do that in perfume…”

  15. springpansy says:

    Alyssa, I’ve so enjoyed your writing on NST and will add your new blog to my web wanderings as well. I pre-ordered your book awhile ago – it sounds really fun.

    I’m not much of a floral person, but I do enjoy my decant of Osmanthus Interdite and the TDC version. Best of luck and wishing you many happy sniffing adventures ahead and hope to read about all of them thru your excellent writing!

    • Alyssa says:

      Thank you for all the good wishes! I hope you will enjoy the book.

      You know, I think of osmanthus as the floral-hater’s floral–a gateway drug, maybe…

  16. eswift83 says:

    What a perfect topic for your final official post here! It’s one of my favorite notes (still need to try the Ineke rendition)… but you’re right, no perfume really beats the real flower, does it? The South Carolina Botanical Gardens in Clemson have an old caboose that is SURROUNDED with these 12′ tall shrubs – when they’re in bloom it’s quite the experience…

    We’ll miss your articles! Congratulations on getting published!

    • Alyssa says:

      Oh, that caboose sounds like what I’m imagining my osmanthus dream street would smell/feel like! Thank you for that picture, and the good wishes, too.

  17. 50_Roses says:

    This post makes me wish that I had an osmanthus in my garden (I live near Houston). I planted one a few years ago, but it didn’t take and died that summer. I don’t really have a brown thumb, as I have dozens of rose bushes which are doing fine, as well as a Meyer lemon, rosemary, mint, chives, and two bay laurels. I may have to try again, particularly as we are now getting plenty of rain after last year’s terrible drought.

    • Alyssa says:

      While I was writing this I wondered if you had some in your yard along with all your other lovelies. Will be curious to see if you can get one to take hold. Isn’t this rain we’ve been getting a blessing? We have trees coming back that lost all their leaves last summer. It’s like a resurrection.

      • 50_Roses says:

        I was in Austin the weekend before last, and it rained while I was there, which was nice to see. It was really heartbreaking, though, to see the devastation around Bastrop. On Hwy 71, east of town, there were just miles and miles of dead, blackened trees. I had seen the news coverage of the wildfires, but this was the first time I had seen the damage in person.

        • Alyssa says:

          I admit, I haven’t seen it yet myself. I know from wildfires in Idaho growing up that things do grow back–often the meadowland becomes shockingly lush from the ash–but I think it will take a few years in this case because of the extreme heat of the first and the drought that followed. Very sad.

  18. nozknoz says:

    Alyssa, I also pre-ordered your book as soon as I read about it here – I’m so looking forward! Your new blog looks beautiful – I’ll be sure to drop by and also look forward to your comments here. Huge thanks for all your wonderful NST posts and for the book, and best wishes on all your new activities!

    • Alyssa says:

      Thank you so much, Noz! I look forward to seeing you at the new place!

  19. Tama says:

    Thank you for that lovely post! I have a bit of Hermes Osmanthe Yunnan and a mini of the TDC. I think I have a sample of Tea Olive somewhere! I have a feeling that osmanthus could become a favorite note. I would love to smell some flowers sometime!

    Be seeing you!

    • Alyssa says:

      I wonder if they grow in CA? Everything else in the world seems to!

      • Tama says:

        Might be too cold in my neck of the woods but probably the outlands and Southern CA.

  20. dee says:

    Thank you so much for the beautiful post Alyssa! I too am going to miss ‘seeing’ you here as a regular contributor… but bigger and better things are on the horizon :)

    In honor of your sweet nosegay, I’m going to go douse myself in Osmanthus Interdite!!

  21. Merlin says:

    I like your description of osmanthus as a floral-hater’s gateway drug! I am presently weaning off orientals and becoming more interested in florals. Perhaps I love Evening e. i. gold because it is meant to be a floriental. I totally agree about osmanthus being the scent of happiness. I recently got a bottle of the Ineke and every time I spritz n’ sniff I become deliriously happy. Other florals do not have an intoxicating effect on me, though I do like several very much. While I like most osmanthus scents I have tried I find most of them a little too light and transient: TDC, Parfum d’Empires OI, Gucci’s Flora and O Yunnan too. Perhaps the plummy note anchors the Osmanthus for me?

    And, hope very much to continue reading you, elsewhere, if necessary!

    • Alyssa says:

      Yes, I bet the plum and the musky base anchor Evening for you. Though I have to tell you, that perfume is chock full of flowers! You may love them more than you think. I remember being so confused when someone explained to me that Songes was basically a white floral–jasmine, tuberose and frangipani. I thought I didn’t like flowers, but what I really didn’t like was the pastel quality I associated with “floral.” Now I love almost everything of course, to my wallet’s detriment… ;-)

  22. Haunani says:

    Hi Alyssa! I will miss your delicious articles here at NST, but I’m glad that you’ll be commenting. I’m really excited about getting my mitts on your book!

    Osmanthus is such a warm and sunshiney smell! My favorite that I’ve tried is the TDC.

    • Alyssa says:

      Thank you! TDC was my early favorite and I still love it, but it is neck and neck with Osmanthus Interdite now.

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