Olives are native to the Mediterranean region. The history of this fruit goes back almost as far as Western Civilization, its development being one of man’s first accomplishments. Evidence from archaeological digs proves that olives were grown in Crete in 2500 B.C. From there, the popularity of the olive spread to Greece, Rome and other Mediterranean districts.
The Olive Tree and its Fruit
The olive tree is an evergreen that can grow as high as 50 feet. Proper pruning methods can keep the trees around 29 feet. Trees have a graceful, swaying appearance that can be rather appealing. Gnarled branches and the green-gray color of the foliage give the olive tree a distinctively unique appearance.
Their fruits, olives, require a long, hot growing season in order for the fruit to ripen properly. If frost hits the blossoms in early spring, the crop is lost. Winters have to be chilly for the fruit to set. Hot, dry winds are harmful when blossoms are open and the fruit is setting.
The foliage of olive trees is feather-shaped and the leaves grow opposite one another. The outer layer of the leaves is rich in tannin, which gives them their distinctive color. These trees can live up to, and beyond, 500 years. They are unyielding in the respect that they will continually spring back if chopped off at ground level. Small tendrils will begin to sprout and if not watched carefully, the olive tree will rejuvenate.
The blossoms of olive trees are a creamy-olive color. They grow on a long stem and are often hidden by foliage.
There are two types of blossoms. The first is a perfect flower, consisting of both male and female elements. The second is a staminate, that is, a blossom without petals. Blossoms are usually pollinated by the wind, but fruit is more desirable if cross-pollinated with other varieties.
Olive fruit are green pomes and turn a blackish-purple when ripe. Some varieties remain green while others turn coppery brown. Olives vary greatly in flavor, oil content and shape. Shapes differ considerably and can be elongated, oval or round. Raw olives are often bitter and uneatable, but some varieties can be eaten raw, once they are sun-dried.
If crops are thinned, olives will grow larger. Thinning must be done immediately after the fruit has set. Crops should be thinned until only two or three olives remain on every 30 centimeters of branch.
Olives that are to remain green are harvested while green, but after they have reached the proper size. After that, they can be picked at any stage, through to ripeness. Ripe olives can bruise easily and have to be handled with care. Mold can be a problem between harvesting and curing.
In Mediterranean regions, olives and olive oil are used daily. Today, there is an increased interest in specialty olive oils, often produced commercially from small groves of trees. Once olives are cured, they are ready for the table. They make healthy and delicious snacks. Enjoy them on a daily basis to promote good heart health.
By Mary M. Alward