The Mediterranean region is the home of the Olea Europaea (Olive Tree). It is mentioned in ancient scripts and has long been considered sacred. Heroes were bedecked with its branches after significant victories. It represented power and glory in these instances. The oil is burnt in religious buildings representing, this time, peace and purity. Olea Europaea when translated means ‘oil from Europe’.
While olive oil might be considered the most important part of the tree, the leaves and wood are also valued. In its native lands, the oil is a major crop for farmers. Medicinal tea is made from the leaves which are also used in skin preparations and soaps. Woodworkers value the close-grained wood. This is yellow to light brown and has a darker tint running through it.
Olives rarely grow past 48 feet. It is short, squat, evergreen shrub with silvery green leaves. Cultivated groves are pruned frequently. As the trees age, the trunks grow twisted and gnarled. The drupe or fruit is elongated and fleshy with a hard stone or pit. The fruit of wild olives is smaller than and not as fleshy as that of cultivated trees. Harvesting takes place when the fruit is green to purple in color. There are now varieties which bear black fruit. Some are treated with chemicals when canned to turn them black.
It has always been a major agricultural crop in the Mediterranean area and is extensively cultivated throughout the world. Only coconuts and oil palms cover more acreage than olives. There are six subspecies of Olea Europaea and hundreds and hundreds of cultivars. Some cultivars such as Kalamata are famed for their qualities as a table food while others are used almost exclusively for the production of oil.
Olives can succumb to disease when grown on rich soil. They like limestone slopes but will grow on clay if well-drained. Although they don’t like the cold, they cope well with drought as they have an extensive root system. They are very long-lived with some having been carbon-dated as over 2,000 years old. Even at these advanced ages, the trees still produce olives.
Trees grown from suckers or seeds do not usually yield well. Generally the cultivar is grafted onto a host. Alternatively the embryonic buds may be cut out and planted. It is rare to have a heavy harvest every year. By regular pruning the trees are kept low enough for the fruit to be more easily picked.
Harvest occurs in autumn and winter. By shaking the branches, fruit falls to the ground to be picked up. Pickers may ‘milk’ the olives into a sack tied round the waist or an umbrella-like net may be placed round the trunk and the fruit caught in this. A mechanical method has spinning tongs which remove the fruit from the tree.
In its natural state, the fruit is bitter and is rarely eaten in its fresh state. Fermenting and curing are the usual methods of treating the olives. The Olea Europaea (Olive Tree) has enjoyed a very long history and will continue to do so.