The Olea Europaea (Olive Tree) is an integral part of the Mediterranean landscape. It is one of the first trees ever to be mentioned in ancient scripts. It was considered sacred and its branches were used to adorn outstanding athletes and warriors. The oil was used as lamp oil and burnt in temples and churches. The olive represents power and glory as well as peace and purity. The Latin name translates as ‘oil from Europe’.
The oil, wood and leaves all have significant value. The leaves are used for medicinal purposes in tea, skin preparations and soaps. The yellow to light brown, close-grained wood has an attractive darker tint running through the grain. Woodworkers hold the timber in high regard. Olive oil has been a major agricultural crop in the Mediterranean regions for thousands of years. The oil, of course, is used extensively all over the world in cooking and eating.
It is a short, stubby tree. It is regularly pruned back but rarely reaches 48 feet in its wild state. It is an evergreen with attractive silver-grey foliage. The trunks of old trees are twisted and gnarled. The fleshy drupe or fruit contains a hard stone. Cultivated trees have larger, fleshier fruit than wild trees. Depending on its intended use, fruit may be harvested when green or purple. Some varieties have black fruit while some olives are treated with chemicals to turn them black when canned.
Whereas the trees were once restricted to the Mediterranean region, it is now grown around the world. Only the oil palm and coconut cover more area than the olive. There are only six subspecies of Olea Europaea. Hundreds of cultivars have been developed for specific purposes. For example the Kalamata has been produced specifically for consumption as a fruit. Others have been improved to produce greater amounts or better quality oil.
Olives prefer light soils and may become diseased on soil that is too rich. They prefer limestone slopes. If they have good drainage, they will even grow on clay. With an extensive root system they stand up well to drought conditions but do not like cold weather. Some ancient trees have been carbon-dated as being over 2,000 years old. Even these very old trees continue to bear fruit.
Propagation is usually by grafting a cultivar to a host. Another way is to plant embryonic buds which then shoot into new trees. Harvests vary from year to year and it is rare to have a heavy yield two years running. Routine pruning helps keep the trees low and allows easy picking.
The fruit is harvested in autumn and winter. Methods of harvesting vary from shaking the branches and picking up the fallen fruit to ‘milking’ the olives by hand-picking into sacks. Mechanical units also employ spinning tongs which knock the fruit from the tree. Sometimes a net is placed round the trunk and spread out like an umbrella to catch the fruit.
Very few varieties are eaten raw as the taste is quite bitter. Curing and fermenting are employed to make the olives acceptable for eating. The Olea Europaea (Olive Tree) will continue to be a very popular crop.