The osmanthus is a fragrant flowering tree or shrub with the most common varieties having gold (var. thunbergii), orange (var. aurantiacus) or silver white (var.latifolius) blossoms, although many different colors and varieties exist. Osmanthus is very popular in China. They are often found in scenic settings. Many Chinese simply enjoy seeing and smelling them on a walk through a city, or while sitting beneath them in a park or yard. Others use them in food, drinks, and cosmetics. Others still find inspiration in them for poems and paintings. The tiny aromatic petals are as highly esteemed in China as tea itself. The timing of the Osmanthus bloom is usually the end of summer or start of the fall, making it eagerly anticipated in areas where the summer is hot and humid.
Osmanthus (osmanthus fragrans, also called sweet olive, fragrant olive, tea olive) is an evergreen tree or shrub. The wild tree is believed to originate near the Himalayan mountains of southwest China. Cultivation of the trees started about 2500 years ago, and it has therefore had plenty of opportunity to become widespread. There are more than 30 varieties spread amongst 20 cities in China. Variations that are winter-hardy have been developed making northern cities, like Beijing, able to grow it. It is a classic plant of China with a rich cultural heritage. It symbolizes beauty and nobility and all things good. It is the city flower of several cities in China: Guilin, Hangzhou, and Suzhou, to name a few of the best known. .
In Hangzhou one doesn't need to go to parks or tourist sites to enjoy them. They are found in abundance in residential areas and alongside ordinary streets. The whole city is filled with the sweet scent of osmanthus when it is in bloom. The fragrance is so pleasant that people find all sorts of ways to enjoy them: walking around, enjoying tea and snacks under the trees, doing exercises near them etc. The timing of the blooms is usually around Chinese mid autumn festival (lunar August) making the holiday atmosphere more delightful. It usually blooms twice, with each bloom lasting several days, adding great color to the golden autumn. There do exist varieties that bloom in all seasons (var. semperflorens), but their flowers are thinner and they have a less intense aroma.
People find different ways to preserve osmanthus petals for later use. The earliest known use of osmanthus fragrans was as herbal medicine. Since then, the edible flowers have been widely used in food, wine, perfume, tea or simply as a flavouring. It is not surprising to find osmanthus flavoured varieties of green, oolong , black and puer tea. Osmanthus flavored tea is especially popular in south Asian countries.
Not many people know about the scented green tea, osmanthus dragonwell, from my hometown. Dragonwell (longjing in Chinese) is one of the 10 most famous Chinese teas for good reason, and osmanthus is just another way of making a good thing even better. The story goes that several artists were enjoying tea under a prolific osmanthus tree, arguing as usual. The debate was getting heated when a soothing autumn breeze brought some osmanthus flower petals to their dragonwell tea cups. Suddenly it all made sense, and everyone was sipping in the sweet aroma, the debate long forgotten.
To make the scented tea involves keeping the tea fresh while waiting for the harvest of the osmanthus. The best of the green teas are harvested in early spring while the most aromatic osmanthus are harvested in the fall. So the first challenge is to keep the tea fresh (keeping the tea half processed) and picking the osmanthus petals in the prime of their bloom. The tea leaves are heated to about 30°C and placed over a layer of fresh osmanthus. Successive layers of osmanthus and tea leaves are placed on top of that, all the while keeping the temperature constant. It takes several hours for the tea leaves to absorb the osmanthus aroma. Then the browned osmanthus petals are picked out leaving a few for ornamentation.
Osmanthus was brought to England as early as the 18th century and has even spread to North America. There are now many osmanthus trees in the southern part of the United States as well as throughout southeast Asia.
Osmanthus, like some kinds of tea itself, is rich in antioxidants. Many believe this tiny flower has significant health benefits and ongoing studies are on the way to prove it. The following are some existing that you may find interesting:
1 Wu L-c, Chang L-H, Chen S-H, et al. Antioxidant activity and melanogenesis inhibitory effect of the acetonic extract of Osmanthus fragrans: A potential natural and functional food flavor additive. LWT Food Sci Technol. 2009;42:1513-1519.http://aromaticscience.com/antioxidant-activity-and-melanogenesis-inhibitory-effect-of-the-acetonic-extract-of-osmanthus-fragrans-a-potential-natural-and-functional-food-flavor-additive/
2 Chien-Ya Hung, Fu-Long Huang, Li-Shian Shi, et al., “The Ethanol Extract of Osmanthus fragrans Flowers Reduces Oxidative Stress and Allergic Airway Inflammation in an Animal Model,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 2013, Article ID 304290, 10 pages, 2013. doi:10.1155/2013/304290 http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2013/304290/abs/
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