The History of Olives and Olive Trees

Published: 18th February 2010
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Thomas Jefferson wrote "The olive tree is the richest gift of heaven." The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has reported "Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who traveled abroad, brought plant material such as olive trees and rice back to the U.S. to develop United States agricultural production." Thomas Jefferson was the U.S. ambassador to France during the Revolutionary War, and he began to import olive trees and seeds into the southern U.S. The excessive humidity of South Carolina and Georgia did not allow profitable olive tree orchards to develop properly in those areas. Jefferson wrote "The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture." He ranked his introduction of the olive tree and dry rice into South Carolina as two of his top lifetime achievements. Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Ronaldson on January 13, 1813, "it is now twenty-five years since I sent them (southern planters) two shipments of about 500 plants of the olive tree of Aix, the finest olive trees in the world."

The fragrant flowers of olive trees are small and creamy white, hidden within the thick leaves. Some cultivars will self pollinate, but others will not. The blossoms usually begin appearing in April and can continue for many months. A wild, seedling olive tree normally begins to flower and produce fruit at the age of 8 years. The fruit of the olive tree is a purplish-black when completely ripe, but a few cultivars are green when ripe and some olives turn a color of copper-brown. The size of the olive fruit is variable, even on the same tree, and the shape ranges from round to oval with pointed ends. Some olives can be eaten fresh after sun-drying and the taste is sweet, but most olive cultivars are bitter and must be treated by various chemical solutions before developing into edible olives. If the olives are thinned on the limbs of the trees to 2 or 3 per twig, the ultimate size of the olives will be much larger. The fruit is gathered in mid October and should be processed as soon as possible to prevent fermentation and a decline in quality.

The leaves of olive trees are gray-green and are replaced at 2-3 year intervals during the spring after new growth appears. Pruning yearly and severely is very important to insure continued production. The trees have the unproductive limbs removed, "so that it will be more fruitful" John 15:2. An olive tree can grow to 50 feet with a limb spread of 30 feet, but most growers will keep the tree pruned to 20 feet to assure maximum production. New sprouts and trees will emerge from the olive tree stump roots, even if the trees are cut down. Some olive trees are believed to be over a thousand years old, and most will live to the ripe old age of 500 years.

Olives generally are beaten off trees with poles, harvested mechanically or by shaking the fruit from the trees onto canvas. Most ripening olives are removed from the trees after the majority of the fruit begins to change in color. It is important to squeeze out the olive oil within a day after harvesting or else fermentation or decline in flavor and quality will occur. The olive oil can be consumed or used in cooking immediately after its collection from the press. Olive oils are unique and distinct, each brand of olive oil having its own character, as determined by many factors, like those unique flavor differences found in fine wines. Prepared commercial olive oils can vary greatly in aroma, fruit flavor; whether the taste is, flowery, nutty, delicate, or mild, and the coloring of olive oil is quite variable.

Olive oil produces many health benefits when used in cooking or when poured over salads. The use of olive oil can improve digestion and can benefit heart metabolism through its low content of cholesterol. Experts claim that olive oil consumption will cause a person to grow shiny hair, prevent dandruff, prevent wrinkles, prevent dry skin and acne, strengthen nails, stop muscle aching, lower blood pressure and cancel out the effects of alcohol.

Olive trees can survive droughts and strong winds, and they grow well on well drained soils up to a pH of 8.5 and the trees can tolerate salt water conditions. In Europe, olive trees are normally fertilized every other year with an organic fertilizer. Alternate bearing can be avoided by heavy pruning and generally the trees respond to this very quickly and favorably.

Olive trees should be purchased that have been vegetatively propagated or grafted, because the seed grown trees will revert to a wild type that yields small olives with an insipid taste. Olive trees are more resistant to diseases and insects than any other fruit tree and, therefore, are sprayed less than any other crop.

The Romans conquered Greece in 146 BC, and the victors took olive secrets to Rome, but since then Greece has remained the greatest exporter of olive oil during the centuries. The olive tree seems to be perfectly adapted for growing in the mild climate of the Mediterranean countries. The trees grow well in dry areas with mild winters and long hot summers, even enduring drought conditions or high winds. The European area of the Mediterranean produces 98% of the world olive oil supply. Olive seed are believed to have been brought to California in 1769 to grow into trees hardy to 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Those olive trees were cultivated in the Franciscan Spanish monasteries.

Even though commercial production of olives in the United States is only 2% of the world market, great interest in growing olives throughout the South has been stimulated by the recent introduction of promising cold hardy olive trees from European hybridizers. Many European immigrants to the United States grow their own olive trees in large pots, that can be moved in and out of the house during seasonal changes.

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