Tree of the moment: Olive

An olive branch has long been a symbol of peace so today, Anzac Day, is a good chance to find out more.

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The olive tree in Yatton Park, Tauranga was planted on May 20, 1971 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Battle of Crete in World War 2 (May 20-30, 1941).  It was donated as a ‘symbol of love and warm connections’ by the people of Galatas. More olive trees have been planted nearby to create a grove. Photo: Sandra Simpson

In the Bible Noah sends out a dove from the ark to have the bird return with an olive twig in its beak – his third attempt at trying to discover if the waters were receding. The flood (and God’s anger) had apparently abated enough that at least one olive tree had begin sprouting foliage again.

In Greek mythology Athena caused an olive tree to spring up on the land that would become Athens, a “better gift” than her rival Poseidon’s well of sea-water, and supposedly the parent of all the olive trees to come. Brides in ancient Greece wore wreaths of olive leaves, as did Olympic victors.

Mars, the Roman god of war, was also the god of peace and on ancient coins was shown carrying an olive branch. An olive branch was added to the Great Seal of the United States in 1780. It has 13 olives and 13 olive leaves to represent the 13 original colonies, while the flag of the United Nations shows Earth surrounded by olive branches.

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An olive tree in flower in Yazd, Iran. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Olive trees (Olea europaea) are legendary for their long lives – but no one knows for sure which the oldest is as olive trees are dated by their girth, not by rings and over the centuries – and millennia – this becomes at best a rough guide. West Bank Palestinians reckon the al Badawi tree in Bethlehem is the world’s oldest at 4,000 to 5,000 years, while the Olive Tree of Vouves in Crete is thought to be at least 3,000 years old.

In 2014 archaeologists believed they uncovered 8,000-year-old evidence of the production of olive oil in what is today northern Israel.

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An olive tree growing inside the Flowerdome at Gardens by the Bay, Singapore. In 2015 one of the trees, originally from Spain and more than 1,000 years old, fruited. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Organic olive grower (and former actress) Carol Drinkwater has written several books about her life with the trees and decided to try and find some of the oldest in The Olive Route, finding success in Lebanon. Read the rest of her entry here.

I began my seventeen-month quest in Beirut … Serendipity put wind in my sails and within my first two or three weeks on the road I had discovered in the mountains up behind the ancient port city of Byblos, two tiny groves of 6000-year-old olive trees. They are not wild trees, these are cultivated trees, and still fruiting.

They were planted on man-made terraces bolstered by dry stone walls, which is a very common sight around the Mediterranean and is one of this region’s oldest methods for preserving water, for keeping the soil irrigated. Standing alongside these sprawling ancients was an epiphanous moment for me. I had been hoping that my quest might unveil clues, facts, witness statements that would take my story back 2,000 years, but SIX thousand… This put a whole new perspective on history. These trees were planted by someone or a group of farmers before Western man had an alphabet, before we could read or write. None of the three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity or Islam – had come into being. Those trees gave me a benchmark. What if they could talk, I asked myself. What stories could they tell me? The history of the Mediterranean, was my answer.

Read more about these trees – which have their own support group, The Sisters Olive Trees of Noah.

Some 99% of olive trees are grown for their drupes (fruit) which contain 20% oil. The fruit is macerated, the stone removed and the pulp pressed cold to yield ‘virgin’ olive oil with low acidity and good taste. Secondary, hot pressings produce lower-grade oils and a secondary oil called pomace, used in soap and cosmetics.

Moving olive oil around in the ancient world led to new crafts and technologies, including amphora storage vessels. Although it’s thought the olive tree didn’t arrive in Greece until 700BC, that empire than shipped it around the western Mediterranean.

Olive tree wood – generally from fallen branches and prunings rather than felled timber – is sought after for its attractive grain and also for its religious significance.

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The olive trees in Yatton Park are fruiting in April, 2018. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Although Charles Darwin noticed olive trees growing at a Bay of Islands mission station in 1835, they were ornamental and it wasn’t until 1990 that New Zealand had its first pressing of olive oil, thanks to retired Israeli scientist Gideon Blumenfeld.

Dr Blumenfeld had spent most of his working life with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation; the last 13 as Horticultural Representative in the South Pacific. Through his friendship with Shimon Lavee (the Israeli professor who cloned a new olive cultivar he named Barnea), Dr Blumenfeld imported the Barnea cultivar and established an olive grove and nursery – by 1990 his business also included stock from the International Olive Council’s tree bank in Cordoba in Spain. Sadly, Dr Blumenfeld died in 1991.

Olives New Zealand, the industry body, has some 200 members, including growers, processors and suppliers and groves range in size from fewer than 100 trees (hobbyists) to 40,000 trees (commercial growers).