YOU don’t need a calendar to know when it’s September and October in Shanghai. You need only sniff the air around you.
That unmistakable whiff is the fragrance of osmanthus, a small, flowering tree in the Oleaceae family, mostly native to Asia. Some liken the perfume of the flower to the smell of ripe apricots.
In Minhang parks, osmanthus grow in abundance. One of the best sites for enjoying a wide variety of the trees is Minhang Sports Park.
Due to an unseasonably cool summer, the earliest osmanthus bloomed about two weeks earlier than usual last month. The distinctive fragrance didn’t last for more than a week because rainstorms swept away most of the flowers.
Wujing Park has more than 200 osmanthus trees growing on both sides of the main pathway.
“This year, the osmanthus buds appeared when lotuses were still blooming, which is quite rare,” said an official with the park. “But the peak blooming season of osmanthus will not come until early October. I believe the National Day holiday will be the best time to enjoy the fragrance here.”
The newly opened Minhang Culture Park has small groves of osmanthus planted, but visitors will have to wait for several years before enjoying their full fragrance. Park officials say it could take up to five years for the trees to reach full maturity and for osmanthus perfume to permeate the area.
In China, osmanthus has been part of the culture for 2,500 years. In the Zhou Dynasty (11th century BC-256BC), osmanthus were planted as street trees, intermingled with pine. Early poets and ancient myths refer to the flower.
Perhaps the most famous tale relates to Wu Gang.
The myth goes that Wu killed a man who had been his wife’s lover. As punishment, he was sent by an ancient god to the moon to cut down an osmanthus tree there.
He could not return home until the tree was felled. But every time Wu struck an axe to the tree, the cut healed itself instantly. In his hopeless task, Wu was given only one day a year off — the Mid-Autumn Festival. Hence, osmanthus is closely associated with the annual holiday.
Osmanthus trees are frequently used in formal Chinese gardens. The Chinese name gui has the same pronunciation as the word for “nobles,” so many wealthy businessmen and high-ranking officials zealously planted the trees in their gardens.
The significance of osmanthus in Chinese cultures goes beyond mere fragrance. The plant is also used in Chinese cooking and in herbal remedies.
Traditional Chinese medicine believes that osmanthus flowers, fruits and roots can be ground into remedies to treat stomach pains, irregular menstrual periods and rheumatism.
The osmanthus flower is also used to make wine, tea and desserts.
Osmanthus cakes are a popular favorite in Shanghai. The cakes have a light sweetness and a strong osmanthus flavor. The New Green Beauty World Restaurant is said to make the best osmanthus cakes in Shanghai. Its cakes follow one rule: They stick on the plate, stick on the chopsticks but never stick on the teeth.
On Qibao Old Street in Minhang, there are several snack shops selling osmanthus cakes. They might not be quite as famous as the New Green Beauty World cakes, but the local versions are still very tasty.
Yipin Fanggao Cake Special is one of the most popular shops on the street selling the cakes. They come in two varieties: one in the traditional recipe and one with a sweet bean paste filling.
Osmanthus wine, a specialty of the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing, is sold in Shanghai but not considered a favorite tipple. The wine has a sweet and sour taste. It is fermented from wild grapes and flavored with osmanthus. It is often called a “lady’s wine” because of its lightness and reputation for maintaining beauty.
Where to enjoy osmanthus outside Minhang
The Shanghai Botanic Garden
Osmanthus is a highlight of the annual autumn flower exhibition. Its fragrance complements the blaze of bright autumn flowers and trees turning color.
Address: 1111 Longwu Rd, Xuhui District
The garden takes its design from the ancient Chinese classic novel “Dream of the Red Chamber.” Osmanthus trees are everywhere in the garden.
Address: 900 Jinshang Highway, Qingpu District
The park was once a private villa and the garden of a notorious gang leader in Shanghai Huang Jinrong. More than 1,000 osmanthus trees are planted in the park, and osmanthus green tea is available there year round.
Address: 128 Guilin Rd, Xuhui District
This popular camping and barbeque site has one of the biggest osmanthus groves in Shanghai, stretching for 3.5 kilometers. Unlike other gardens or parks, visitors can inhale the perfume of osmanthus while enjoying water sports and other outdoor recreation.