The olive tree or Olea europaea is an evergreen species that was originally found across the Mediterranean basin but has since been cultivated across much of the world.
Both the trees and their fruits are cherished across the for the style and flavour they bring, the trees thrive in a Mediterranean climate but with the right protection and care, we can grow our own right here in the UK.
Olive Tree Botanical Description
Olive trees are an evergreen variety with small, silver-green leaves. Young olive trees are slender, graceful saplings but with age, mature olive trees become gnarled with thick callus trunks that are easily recognisable.
The average lifespan of the tree is 500 years but some ancient olive trees have been known to live for thousands of years. The current oldest tree is estimated to be around 2,000 years old!
Olive trees produce small white blossoms in the spring before bearing the little ripening fruits known as olives. The trees can bear fruit from as young as 5 years old but production becomes more steady with age.
Natural History of the Olive Tree
The olive is a small tree species that makeup part of the Oleaceae family. Its botanical name Olea europaea translates to “European Olive” which stems from the tree originating in warmer regions of the Old World Mediterranean around 6,000 years ago.
There are about 20 species of tender, leathery-leafed evergreen trees and shrubs in this genus but only a handful will survive life in our mild, British gardens.
It’s very much believed that the resources harvested from the olive tree were a major contribution to the rise of both the ancient Greek and Roman empires.
Uses of the Olive Tree
Olive trees have been used for thousands of years and are very resourceful, they can be used for their wood, leaves, ornamentation and fruits.
The olive bush produces small fruits known as olives and they have been a major resource in the whole of the Mediterranean area as one of the staple ingredients in the cuisine.
Around 90% of all harvested olives are used for creating olive oil. The remaining 10% of fruit from the olive tree are used for what we call table olives, or eating olives.
Table olives are picked at different levels of ripeness for eating:
- Green olives are picked when they have reached full size but not yet ripened. They are bitter in flavour.
- Red to brown olives are picked at the start of their ripening cycle. They have a blushed colour to their skin but the inner flesh is yet to change.
- Black olives are ripe fruits that have been picked at full maturity.
Olive Tree Medicinal Uses
Not many people will know the olive leaf has been used for the treatment of many viral conditions, including (very topically) Swine Flu, herpes and shingles.
The leaves contain a compound called oleuropein which is believed to confer this anti-viral activity.
Like olive oil, medicinal uses include reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, thanks to the presence of an antioxidant, vasodilating and antiplatelet properties.
Olive Tree Symbolism and Ancient Wisdom
Olive branches and trees are a universal symbol of peace, friendship, victory and hope.
Due to the long lived nature of the olive, in many parts of the world, it has gained the name “Tree of Eternity”.
Sending an Olive Tree Gift is a symbol of all these things and truly is a gift that lasts a lifetime.
Olive Trees in Ancient Greece
The olive tree has deep links within Ancient Greece and it’s mythology.
It was written that Zeus challenged Poseidon (the God of the sea) and Athena (the God of wisdom) to win the hearts and minds of the city people.
Poseidon struck the rock of the Acropolis with his trident and up burst and salty spring, a symbol of power.
Athena would instead produce an olive tree, a gift of food, shade and fuel. The city people spoke and chose Athena and from that day onwards their city would be known as Athens.
Since that time, the olive branch would remain a symbol of victory. At the Olympic games, wreaths of olive leaves were placed on the heads of the winners.
Olive oil was the only oil burned in sacred lamps in the ancient temples of Greece and was traditionally used as an anointing oil in sacred healing rituals.
Olive Trees Today
Even today, the olive tree remains a strong staple in the lives of many people. To “extend an olive branch” is to try and find a resolution in conflict.
Any journey across the Mediterranean will greet you with the sight of olive groves and the people who lovingly grow and care for them.
Passed down in generations, these trees are believed to have all stemmed from that first tree that Athena created.
Olive trees can be styled and transformed like our Twisted Olive Tree Gift which features a unique corkscrew shaped stem to add beautiful ornamentation to the garden.
Olive Tree Care & Tips
Olive trees will fare well when planted in fertile, deep and well-drained soil, preferably with the protection of a south or west-facing wall in full sun.
They have evolved over thousands of years in warm climates on sparse stony hillsides with poorly fertile soils making them incredibly drought tolerant and easy to care for with added protection.
See our full olive tree care guide for all the information.