Olive – Olea europaea
Other Names: European Olive, African Olive, olivo (Spanish), elaía (Greek), zayit (Hebrew), and many others.
Distinctive Characteristics: The iconic Olive tree is the culturally invaluable botanical elder of the Mediterranean landscape. The trunk and limbs are characteristically gnarled, fissured, and twisted, with extremely hard wood. The distinctive evergreen, lance-shaped leaves are greygreen on the upper side and silvery-white on the underside. The well-known small fruit is a fleshy drupe encasing a hard stone. Purple-black when ripe, the olive fruit varies from 0.19–1.5 in. (0.5–4 cm) in length. The hardy tree responds well to pollarding and pruning. The tree puts out shoots that can form a new tree even after the trunk has died, burned, or been cut down. Drought tolerant, the Olive may send down roots up to 20 ft. (6 m) in search of water. Slow-growing, the tree becomes more gnarled as it ages. Ancient trees can hollow out completely and survive, producing olives even after a thousand years. Wild Olives are known as the species Olea oleaster. To cultivate trees for producing edible olives, saplings must be grafted onto the stumps of old trees. There are perhaps 700 cultivars, or varieties, of Olea europaea, with their fruit varying widely in color, size, shape, and quality.
Distribution: Native to the Mediterranean, Asia, and northern Africa. Elevation: sea level to 2,900 ft. (900 m).
Ecosystem: Farmed in groves in dry Mediterranean ecosystems.
Maximum Age: Estimated at 3,000 years.
Maximum Height and Girth: 49 ft. (15 m) in height; 34 ft. (10.5 m) in circumference.
Animal Community: Rabbits, voles, and mice eat the bark. Many species of birds eat the fruit and disperse the seeds, extending the trees' range to the point of being invasive in some areas.
Traditional Uses: One of the world's oldest cultivated plants—and the Mediterranean's most important crop trees—the Olive has been cultivated for olive oil, the olive fruit, the leaves, and fine wood for an estimated 9,000 years.
Medicine: The oil has been used medicinally to treat skin ailments and ulcers, as a laxative, and as a cosmetic treatment, applied to the skin and hair for grooming and general health. The leaves were used as an antiseptic, antiviral, astringent, sedative, and fever reducer, and to treat malaria.
Food: The fruit and oil were eaten.
Tools and Objects: The oil was used for burning in lamps. The wood was used to make tools and furniture.
Art and Ceremony: The Olive tree, branch, leaf, fruit, and oil have long been considered sacred in many civilizations and religions. The tree has been a symbol of peace, wisdom, glory, fertility, abundance, power, and purity. The leafy branches were offered ritually to deities and powerful figures as symbols of blessing and purification. The oil was used to anoint kings, priests, athletes, the dying, and sacrificial offerings. In Egypt, the Olive was associated with the goddess Isis, and leafy branches were found carved into the pyramids and wrapped around the head of King Tutankhamun. Images of the trees appear in Minoan frescoes. In ancient Greece, the Olive tree was associated with the goddess Athena and the founding of Athens. The oil was burned in the sacred lamps of temples and was the "eternal flame" in the original Olympic games. Victorious athletes were crowned with its leaves and given bottles of sacred oil as prizes. The wood was used for carving statues of deities. In ancient Rome, the Olive was associated with the goddess Minerva. The Olive tree, olive oil, and olives played an important role in the Bible and the Quran.
Modern Uses: Olives are one of the most extensively cultivated fruit crops in the world, with Spain producing the most, followed by Italy and then Greece. Ninety percent of all harvested olives are turned into oil, which is mostly used for cooking; about 10% are used as table olives. The raw oil is considered a health food, and is also used as an ingredient in natural soaps. The wood, prized for its hardness, durability, color, and interesting grain patterns, is carved into kitchen utensils, wooden bowls, cutting boards, fine furniture, and decorative items. Dye can be made from the olive skins and leaves.
Threats and Conservation: Not threatened.