Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The olive tree

If you don’t know the olive tree, there are hundreds of trees you might consider more beautiful. If you are lucky to know the olive closely, however, no other tree will mean all that much to you. The olive tree is a world onto its own. It defines the Mediterranean realm. It has such a long and significant history that its beginnings are woven into mythology. It is so essential that old trees are revered as wayside shrines in many coastal locations in the Mediterranean. For centuries the olive has been a symbol of peace, abundance and life itself.

                                          Old olive trees in Bodrum and Antalya, Turkey

The olive tree is one of oldest cultivated trees in the world. It is native to the western and southern coastal areas of Anatolia (Turkey) and the eastern Mediterranean Basin countries of Syria, Lebanon, Northern Iraq and Cyprus and it has been in existence for nearly 8000 years.

When the Assyrians discovered that oil could be pressed from its fruit they cultivated the olive shrub. The shrub evolved into a tree. The olive tree grows slowly and requires careful cultivation but it lasts for generations. In many places trees that are older than thousand years still exist and maybe even bear fruit. We are told that there are much older trees in existence.

Gradually the olive spread to nearby countries from where it originated. The Phoenicians carried the olive by trade to the Mediterranean shores of Africa and Southern Europe. As far back as 3000 BC, olives were grown commercially in Crete. They may have been the source of the wealth of the Minoan civilization. Olives have been found in Egyptian tombs from 2000 years BC. As the Romans extended their empire they brought the olive with them.

Today the major countries that grow the olive tree for its fruit and oil are Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Morocco. It is only in the past several hundred years that the olive has spread to North and South America, New Zealand and Australia.

Its scientific name Olea europaea meaning "oil from/of Europe", the olive is a species of small evergreen tree or shrub in the Oleaceae family. Its fruit, also called the olive (from Latin olivea), and its oil are of major agricultural importance in the Mediterranean region. The Oleaceae family includes species such as lilacs, jasmine, forsythia and the true ash trees-Fraxinus.

It is estimated that there are 800 million olive trees growing on Earth and around 500 different cultivars of olives. Humans have manipulated the olive tree for so many thousands of years that it is unclear what varieties came from which other varieties. Shrub-like "wild" olives still exist in the Middle East. Researchers are working with new gene mapping techniques to figure out the olive’s family tree.

The olive tree does not grow very high. The trunk widens as the tree ages and it is typically gnarled and twisted. The silvery green leaves are oblong and narrow. The small white flowers are borne in racemes from the axils of the leaves. This is to say, shoots appear from the axil, that is between the upper surface of the leafstalks and the stems from which they grow and all along the shoot which is also called the axis, flowers are borne. In a raceme the oldest flowers are towards the base and new flowers appear as the shoot grows.

                                                                                                    Photograph: Seyhun Ağar

The fruit of the olive is a droop 1-2.5 cm long and it contains one big woody seed. Olives can’t be just picked off the tree and eaten. They are intolerably bitter before they are cured through a long and elaborate process until they acquire their wonderful tastes that we love.

"Depending on the cultivar, the shape and texture of olives vary greatly from tiny spherical orbs to large, plump ovals. Their colors vary as well, but this has to do with how long they have been allowed to ripen on the trees, not with the cultivar: the fruit starts out a yellowish green, then during the many months of ripening on the tree, they slowly turn to green, then light brown, then a dark purplish and eventually black, though some varieties are green when considered ripe. The curing processes render olives edible at all the different stages of ripeness, thus giving us endless variety of color, texture and taste. When picking olives to make into oil however, the fruit must have reached the right level of ripeness to ensure good quality oil with a low level of acidity."(http://www.delallo.com/articles/olives-noble-fruits-place-history-and-table)

The harvesting of olives is a slow, labor-intensive work usually done without use of any mechanical devices. Olives and especially table olives can be easily bruised and must be handled very gently. Harvesting of olives is almost always done by hand.

     An olive grove

Most olives today are harvested by shaking the boughs or the whole tree. However, olives that fall to the ground can result in poor quality oil. Another method of picking olives is standing on a ladder and "milking" the olives into a sack tied around the harvester's waist. A third method uses a device called an oli-net that wraps around the tree trunk and opens to form a catcher from which workers collect the fruit. Another method uses an electric tool, the oliviera, which has large tongs that spin around quickly, removing fruit from the tree. Sometimes, whole branches are sawed off trees which can help with the next production.

Olives are harvested in the autumn and winter in the northern hemisphere. Green olives are picked at the end of September to about the middle of November. Blond olives are picked from the middle of October to the end of November and black olives are collected from the middle of November to the end of January or early February. However, the time will vary in each country, and with the season and the cultivar.

Throughout centuries, the olive tree, its fruit and its oil have been lauded by story tellers, philosophers, poets, and writers. The olive is praised in religious texts. Noah sent out a pigeon to search for dry land after days of deluge and the pigeon came back with a branch from an olive tree by which Noah knew that the waters were receding. Homer (around 8th or 7th century BC) refers to olive oil as “liquid gold”. Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) explains, “….these black olives between the teeth. A taste older than meat, older than wine. A taste as old as cold water..."

In the land of the olive, if olive growers did not tend to their groves, the ground under the trees would be taken over by daisies, chamomile, anemones, field poppies, buttercups, forget-me-nots, stinging nettle, mallow.………

      The land of the olive tree.....The Aegean region of Turkey                  Photograph: Deniz Bevan


  1. Hi Beste - lovely history and I've always loved that the olive tree looks after each generation of its family .. giving them sustenance, shade and not demanding a great deal ... but giving ... I love Durrell's words ... Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) explains, “….these black olives between the teeth. A taste older than meat, older than wine. A taste as old as cold water..."

    Lovely photos too .. Hilary

  2. Thank you for the encouraging words from the anonymous reader.

  3. I like the new background :)) looking forward to this week's post...

  4. Hi Beste - you mention here about an anonymous reader - I can't see an anonymous comment.

    Re commenting ... it's not my blog - I occasionally have blogs when it won't accept my comment, so I leave it and come back later on (a nuisance I know), Google-Blogger has made some changes that seem to be affecting some blogs.

    I note here on your comment box there's no "choose an identity" section ... compare yours and mine ... perhaps if that was up, then you'd be able to comment over on my blog .... sadly it's trial and error ...

    If we could email about this rather than leave a comment ... thank you .. I'd love you to be able to comment - but I don't think it's my end of things I'm afraid .. trial and error by you ... but the above note on "identity section" may make a difference ... cheers Hilary