There are few among us who do not appreciate the olive tree – its edible fruit and the oil gleaned from it have become Kiwi kitchen essentials while the tree’s small size and its attractive silvery foliage, make it popular in modern gardens.
However, this tree’s history dates back 6000 to 7000 years and it is surrounded by myth, legend and many truths, too.
Long-time staples of the economies of Mediterranean countries, the olive (botanical name Olea europaea) is believed to have originated in that part of the Middle East which was once ancient Persia and Mesopotamia before spreading east and south to Egypt, Jordan, Italy, Greece and other lands of the region. Traditionally representative of peace and victory, olive branches have, for centuries, adorned the uniforms of many a man marching to war.
According to Greek mythology, the origins of this representation run a little something like this: Zeus’ daughter, Athena (the goddess of wisdom and war) had a little spat with her uncle, Poseidon (god of the sea) who was forever trying to claim earthly treasures for himself.
Never one to mess about, Poseidon aggressively thrust his trident into the Acropolis, which brought forth a spring of water, thereby staking his claim. Wise as she was, and rather than sinking to her uncle’s level, Athena took the high ground and planted an olive tree beside the spring.
The people of the city appreciated her gift more than Poseidon’s – ‘well’ it did come by way of a major act of vandalism! – so they pronounced the city hers and named it Athens.
Worn since by Greek brides and Olympians, olive wreathes continue to carry the tradition of conflict and resolution.
Mixing mythology here, but maybe it could be said that Poseidon did temporarily get his vengeance when (according to the Bible) Noah was left to sail the flooded globe looking for a new home for all creatures great and small.
However, whichever deity ordained that Noah must take to the waves, it was again the olive branch – this time clasped in the beak of a dove – that signalled an end to upheaval.
Of course, the ancient Greeks have made much ado about olives, too.
They are said to have smeared olive oil on their bodies and hair as a matter of grooming and good health and the oil was also used to anoint kings and athletes in ancient Greece.
It was burnt in the sacred lamps of temples as well as being the ‘eternal flame’ of the original Olympic Games. Victors in these games were crowned with its leaves.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus crawls beneath two shoots of olive growing from a single stock and in The Iliad there is a metaphoric description of a lone olive tree in the mountains, by a spring.
Italy also has history with this celebrated tree – according to Pliny the Elder, a vine, a fig tree and an olive tree grew in the middle of the Roman Forum; the latter planted to provide shade (the garden plot was recreated in the 20th century).
The Roman poet Horace also mentions it in reference to his own diet, which he describes as very simple: ‘As for me, olives, endives, and smooth mallows provide sustenance.’
The Bible often mention olives with the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, being mentioned several times in the New Testament.
The allegory of the olive tree in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans refers to the scattering and gathering of Israel. It compares the Israelites to a tame olive tree and the gentiles to a wild olive branch.
The olive tree and olive oil are also mentioned numerous times in the Koran, the olive being praised as a precious fruit while Muhammad reportedly said: ‘Take oil of olive and massage with it – it is a blessed tree’.
Interestingly, olives are used as substitutes for dates (if not available) during Ramadan fasting, and olive tree leaves are used as incense in some Muslim Mediterranean countries.
It was the European settlers who brought the olive tree to New Zealand in the early 1800s. However, it wasn’t until 1986 that the first commercial olive grove was established in Marlborough.
An article in the New Zealand Herald in June 2000 reported that in the two years prior, up to 40,000 olive trees had been planted in mainly coastal areas of Northland for oil production but the Department of Conservation feared there was a risk that the fast-growing trees could spread in the wild and become a problem.
As it is, more and more people have delved into olive oil production in this country many with outstanding success while others just plant olive trees for their aesthetic beauty and, perhaps for the fruit.
And, this month, the good people at Yates highlighted in their newsletter the planting and care of olives, reminding readers that tapenade, pizza, pasta, breads and salads are just a few delicious ways to enjoy olives – in a martini, too!
Yates reported: Olive trees, with their attractive greyish foliage, can successfully be grown in backyards as well as in a large pot in a sunny courtyard. They’re hardy, dry tolerant plants that grow well in cool to temperate climates.
Different varieties are suited to different uses, such as ‘Manzanillo’ for pickling, ‘Kalamata’ for eating fresh and cooking and ‘Frantolo’ for oil, and also for different climates, so pick a variety suitable for your area (and your favourite recipe). Also check your chosen olive to see if it will produce a better crop if cross pollinated with another olive. Trees take about four to five years to bear fruit.
When planting a new olive tree, mix some Yates® Thrive® Natural Blood & Bone into the planting hole and keep the soil moist while the olive establishes. Reapply Yates Blood & Bone every eight weeks from spring to autumn to encourage healthy growth and lots of olives.
Soil tip: olives prefer a slightly alkaline soil (pH 7 – 8). In areas with acidic soil, apply some Yates Hydrangea Pinking Liquid Lime & Dolomite around the root zone to increase the pH.
Eastlife, March 2017
EastLife is an independent, locally-owned lifestyle magazine covering Auckland’s east.
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