The Olea Europaea (Olive Tree) has always been an important part of life in the Mediterranean region. There are many references to it in ancient scripts. Its Latin name means ‘oil from Europe’. Olive oil was once considered sacred and was burnt in the lamps of temples. Victors of significant contests were adorned with a crown of leaves. It is seen as a symbol of peace, glory, power and purity.
The fruit is made into oil but the leaves and wood are also valuable products. The oil is a major cash crop for the farmers of its native area. The leaves are used in medicinal teas and combined with olive oil in soaps and skin preparations. The wood is close-grained and yellow or light brown with a darker tint. It is highly regarded by woodworkers.
It is an evergreen shrub, which rarely grows more than 48 feet in height. Most are kept even shorter by frequent pruning. It is short and squat and the leaves a silvery green. The trunks, especially of old trees, grow twisted and gnarled. The fruit is a drupe, meaning it has fleshy outer part surrounding a hard stone. Wild olives typically have smaller fruit with less flesh than cultivated varieties. The fruit is harvested when green to purple in color. Although there are olives which are naturally black, canned olives are sometimes treated with chemicals to obtain the black color.
Olives have always been grown extensively in the Mediterranean area. It is now one of the most extensively grown trees in the world. In terms of acreage only coconuts and oil palms cover more land. There are six subspecies but many hundreds of cultivars, developed for specific purposes. The Kalamata for instance is grown specifically as a table olive.
The trees thrive on limestone slopes and grow best on light soil. They will even grow on clay if it is well-drained. When grown in rich soils they sometimes contract diseases. They cope well with drought and have a sturdy, well-spread root system. Some trees have been verified as over 2,000 years old. Most of these old trees are still bearing top-quality olives.
While they will grow from suckers or seeds, the yield from these trees is usually poor. A more common method of propagation is by grafting the cultivar onto an existing tree. Another method is to cut out and plant embryonic buds. Heavy crops occur only every few years and rarely two years in succession. Regular pruning keeps the trees low enough for easy picking of the fruit.
It is common to harvest the olives either in autumn and/or winter. There are several methods employed to harvest olives. The boughs or tree may be shaken vigorously and the fruit picked up from the ground; the olives may be ‘milked’ into a bag attached to the waist or a net may be wrapped round the trunk. The fruit is caught in the net and collected by pickers. There is also an electric machine which has tongs that spin, removing the fruit.
The fruit has a bitter taste in its natural state and there are very few varieties that can be enjoyed fresh. Olives are normally fermented or cured before being consumed. The Olea Europaea (Olive Tree) is part of the culture of many countries.