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Mediterranean Made

The Versatile Olive Tree

By Virginia Hayes

A handful of trees are so ubiquitous in the California landscape
that it seems as if they have always been here. Eucalyptuses and
palms are two such groups and one, Schinus molle, even goes by the
common name California pepper tree, although its home is in the
Andes Mountains in Perú. One other adaptable and common tree from
Europe (probably the Middle East) is the olive (Olea europea). The
olive was domesticated thousands of years ago and its use spread
throughout the warmer areas of the European continent. Useful for
its cured fruits, the oil they produce, as well as fine-grained
wood, olive trees were considered essential to every homestead.
They were first brought to California by the Spaniards who planted
them at their missions and further introductions followed
throughout the 1800s to the present. Individual trees may live to
be hundreds of years old, with many documented at 600 years or
more. Those on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem are reputed to be
2,000 years old and the oldest living tree, growing in Crete, is
said to be 5,000 years old.

In recent years, olives have become somewhat of an icon for the
Mediterranean lifestyle and landscape. Mature trees have gnarled
trunks, spreading branches, and a full crown of glossy green leaves
that have a silvery underside giving the whole tree a gray-green
aspect. They top out at 25 or 30 feet in height and can have an
equal spread. Young trees get their height fairly quickly, and then
slowly attain their character.

They can be trained as a single-trunked specimen or suckers can
be selected to produce a multi-stemmed plant. Plants should be
sited carefully as most varieties produce fruit that drops and can
stain patios or sidewalks. If planted over a sidewalk, foot traffic
can also pick up the juice and bring it inside to ruin rugs or
carpets. However, several selections profess to be fruitless. These
varieties may bear tiny fruits that pose less of a problem or
flower sparsely and set very small crops. Look for ‘Bonita,’
‘Majestic Beauty,’ ‘Swan Hill,’ or ‘Wilsoni.’ One other selection,
‘Little Ollie,’ also bears almost no fruit and is much smaller than
other olives, forming a dense shrub up to 12 feet in height. These
non-flowering varieties are also desirable if you suffer from
allergies. Olive pollen is a common irritant for many people.

It is possible to use a plant growth regulator to prevent fruit
formation. These are available under a number of names such as
Florel and Fruit Stop and must be sprayed on during flowering to be
effective. As you can imagine, this method is difficult and
expensive with large trees. Selective pruning of the branches
formed in the previous year can eliminate much of the flowering
potential. Pruning can also be done to develop a more handsome
structure.

Tough and versatile, the trees prefer rich soil, but will
tolerate almost any situation. They are drought tolerant once
established and thrive in the hottest inland areas as well as at
the coast. Olives require little, if any, fertilizer and withstand
freezing temperatures to about 15 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are
planting for fruit production, trees will begin to bear at about
six years of age.

Olives are one of California’s hottest agricultural crops these
days. There are nearly 40,000 acres of olive trees in production
and more acres are being planted each year. Most of the fruit will
be processed for table olives, but the oil market is strong and a
growing number of orchards are devoted to these types. Although the
trees continue to produce for many years — there are olive orchards
in California with trees that have been in production for more than
100 years — the usual lifetime is about 50 years. As newer
varieties of olives are developed, farmers may also sacrifice old
trees in order to replant with a more desirable selection. Unlike
some other fruits, though, there is a second market for these trees
after they are removed. Olive trees transplant quite easily, so it
is not uncommon to see new housing developments with mature olives
gracing their streets or gardens. Their contorted trunks and large
stature lend their character to the landscape immediately. There
are tree brokers that specialize in procuring and planting them if
you desire to get a mature look without the decades-long wait.

Even if you don’t want to try your hand at preserving olives or
form a local co-op to press your own olive oil, you are sure to
love the look of an olive tree in your own garden.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer
your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent,
122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to vahayes@lotusland.org.

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