Olive trees are the most often cited trees in western literature as evidenced by Lawrence Durrell’s poetic comment, “A taste older than meat, older than wine.” This statement places olives almost at the level of bread; as the Italian say, “As good as bread.”
Athena gifted the olive tree to the ancient Greeks and western civilization; its food and oil, premiere wood of a beautiful grain, oils for cleansing and lighting are all special. For me, there is scarcely a more beautiful tree. Its graceful, silver-green, sky- caressing branches are the ancient Mediterranean maidens; in old age its vortices of root and trunk are powerful, sculpted fortresses.
Olive trees are native to the coastal areas of the Mediterranean. They are related to the ash tree family. Theophrastus said they grew best in sight of the sea. In California, we have the best climate for them in the United States. Olive trees take lows down to 29 to 13 degrees F, and they thrive in summer heat, especially if watered well during the winter. They grow well in clay-like soils and even better in well-drained, fertile earth. If grown as a lawn tree, olives receive more than enough water and fertilizer and will grow vigorously. Most olive tree are cloned from cuttings of known varieties, so one can be certain of the types at the nurseries.
Olives grown for production of fruit are cut back severely, making the branches about six feet tall. I was once fortunate to get lovely chunks of wood for carving from Pirandello’s trees at Caos, Sicily, actually planted by “i Saraceni,’ 800 years ago in sight of Africa across the sea. Olives live long.
The olive tree from Plato’s Academy lived 2,400 years to about 1976. There are many olives over 2,000 years old, and that is why I abhor seeing them bull-dozed ruthlessly in my own and other neighborhoods. The Italians recently dedicated an olive to Michelle Obama. It is 1,400 years old and called “La Regina” by its Apulian growers.
I have five olive trees in my garden and they provide a strong, chthonic thread to my Sicilian homeland. Although my lot is small, they can be kept to size if pruned regularly, keeping the branches open, but vigorous enough to produce olives.
I usually cure my black olives in the fall, although in recent years the olive fruit fly has taken its toll. I place the alternating layers of olives and rock salt in a wooden box and let the salt leach out and cure the olives. The drippings need to “caught” in a plastic tray of sorts.
The olives are cured in about two or three months, and can then be stored in glass jars. They get eaten fast in my house, so there is no need worrying about them molding or spoiling.
I recommend either The Western Garden Book or Flora for complete lists of olive trees—there are many varieties now. However, I have had success with “Ascoltano,” “Manzanillo,” and “Mission.” There are even so-called fruitless types, but I can’t see having them in my garden. I love the tree of leaf, flower and bole, as Yeats said.