Olives are an ancient type of tree. There is fossil evidence of olive trees as long ago as 20,000 or even 40,000 years ago, during the Oligocene Era, a transition time between the Eocene and Miocene geographical eras. More importantly for us is that olive trees have been cultivated around the Mediterranean for at least 5,000 or perhaps 6,000 years. Or to put it another way, they were an important crop as long ago as the Bronze age.
Spread of the Olive Tree
As Europeans explored the world, they took olive trees with them. There were no olive trees growing in North or South America, but the Spaniards introduced them. These hardy trees quickly adapted to the warmer parts of both continents.
It is thought that olive trees were first introduced in Australia in the early 1800s. There was no particular formal introduction, but by the 1830s there olive varieties were growing in most locations in Australia.
Olives are hardy trees. They can thrive on very little water. Their fruits are enjoyed by many animals, and birds thus their seeds are quickly spread. In some areas, they even act as an invasive species, crowding out undergrowth and other trees. There is some concern about their role in bush fires, as the trees are oil-rich and can become tinder dry in hot weather.
With that said, olive trees can be a highly profitable commercial plantation. Olive oil has become an incredibly popular cooking oil, the demand often exceeding the supply. Green pickled olives, stuffed olives, black olives, olives on pizza, olives in recipes, even olives on sandwiches – it is really difficult to find an unpalatable way to use an olive. More than that, olive oil, long used in the Mediterranean on both hair and skin, is an important part of many modern cosmetics.
Olive Trees in Your Backyard
Olive trees, although hardy, need a warm climate to thrive. If you dream of having one in your backyard, you need to live in an area where winter temperatures fall below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, but remain above 20 degrees F. You need long, warm summers, and at least a small amount of rainfall or the ability to irrigate. Olive trees don’t need huge amounts of water, but they do need some.
Harvesting Olives in Your Backyard
It will take a year or two, depending on the size and type of olive tree that you plant before you can pick olives from your tree. Since the trees grow to be quite large, an easy method of collecting the olives is to spread a tarp under the tree, then shake the tree so that the ripe fruit falls down onto the tarp.
But you should not look forward to picking up one of those olives, popping it into your mouth, and enjoying that rich olive taste. Olives are quite bitter when fresh, and must be processed before they can be eaten.
Fermentation is one common way to remove the bitterness from olives. Another way is to soak them in brine. The olives can be placed in a press so that the juices are squeezed out of them, creating the beginnings of olive oil. Processing can take several weeks, so be prepared to be patient.
What is Your Favorite Olive?
As mentioned, olives must be processed before they can be enjoyed. One way to take care of that bitterness is to pickle the olives. Pickled olives can be green or black. The color has to do with the degree of ripeness when the fruit is picked. A common way to enjoy pickled green olives is to stuff them with a bit of pimento.
Black olives are often placed in a brine. They might be sold as whole olives with the seeds still in them, as deseeded olives or even as olive bits or slices. You can put them in salads, on sandwiches or on pizza. (With mushrooms – totally delish!)
Olive Oil – Not Just for Popeye
Olive Oyl was girl friend to the cartoon character, Popeye. She was an interesting character that had quite a role in the comic strip.
Olive oil, the liquid cooking oil, can have a big role in your culinary efforts. Considered to the chock full of “good fats” olive oil turns up in a lot of recommended diets, especially those based on the Mediterranean diet.
Olives Can be Just a Beautiful Tree
While olive trees can be grown for their commercial or culinary applications, they can simply be a beautiful shade tree in your back yard. They grow to be about thirty-five feet tall if not pruned. They have a dense leaf canopy which makes for nice shade. And they have beautiful blooms. The fruit can create a bit of a mess if you do not plan to harvest it, but it is not too difficult to rake up.
On that same thought, the fruit is enjoyed by several types of parrots and other tropical birds, as well as by some mammals. It is even a host plant for the monarch butterfly, a butterfly that is on the endangered species list.