The Extraordinary Olive
The several uses of the olive tree, Olea europaea L., have long been recognized and celebrated by human civilization. Olive trees have been cultivated since prehistoric times in Asia Minor, and introduced with human migration and trade throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, into Africa, and eventually into New Zealand and North America. Thomas (1995) lists the beginning of olive cultivation as aproximately 3000 B.C. Olives appear in one of the first cookbooks ever discovered. As long ago as the 17th century B.C., the olive was considered sacred. In Greek mythology, Athena is said to have placed an olive tree on the Acropolis in order to win over the denizens of Attica, a favor for which the city became her namesake, Athens (Anonymous 1997). The champion at the Olympic Games was crowned with its leaves. "Offering an olive branch" is synonymous with peaceful intentions. The oil was burned in the lamps of sacred temples, as well as being the "eternal flame" of the Olympic games.
There are many references to the olive in the Bible. One of the most significant is in the tale of Noah and the Flood. The dove, sent out to search for a sign of land and life, returned with none other than an olive branch. Moses proclaimed that all men who worked to cultivate olives were exempt from military service (Grieve 1995). The olive is often referred to as a symbol of goodness, purity, and life. The miracle of Hanukkah was the olive oil which burned for eight nights when there was only enough to last for one day (Prero 1996). It is clear that the olive was an important part of life in the Mediterranean, as is the world over today.
Olive trees are graceful in appearance, with elegant lanceolate silvery evergreen leaves borne on thin branches with pale gray bark. They are 20 to 40 feet tall at maturity, and begin bearing fruit between four and eight years of age (Thomas 1995). Olive trees can attain quite a long life span. "Plato's olive tree is still alive, though no longer productive", and many are estimated to be over 2,000 years old (Neff and ResSeguie 1995). The small flowers are fragrant and creamy white, borne on an inflorescence of 15-30. These flowers may be perfect, but are more often staminate (Thomas 1995). Both cross-pollination and self- pollination occur. Olive trees are wind pollinated, but propagation is usually done vegetatively from rootstock, since seed propagation is time-consuming and often nonproductive (Tous and Ferguson 1996).
The fruit of the olive tree is a small drupe with high oil content (Thomas 1995). The trees bear fruit alternately. The common forms of olives seen in an American market are either green or black, but actually these types could be harvested from the same tree. The olive fruit begins white, then changes color gradually as it ripens, moving through green, then reddish, and finally to black with ripeness. There is an old Arab riddle that says, "Our servant is green....