Olive Trees: “The Beauty of Age”

An ancient Olive Tree

By planting an olive tree (Olea europaea)  on top of a hill in ancient Greece, the goddess Athena got a city named after her. Or so that story goes. Thousands of years later, there is still a gnarly olive tree growing on the acropolis. And although it is probably not the original tree, it stands for everything associated with olive trees: peace, civility, gentle protection from harsh sunlight, and the production of fruit which can sustain life on its own.

The olive tree has been considered sacred by the Greeks – ancient and modern- for thousands of years. It was the sacred tree of the goddess Athena and Athens. The olive branch is a sign of peace, when made into a wreath it is a trophy for olympic athletes.

Nothing is ever wasted from the olive tree. The fruit is pressed for its golden oil which is consumed raw or cooked and is a staple of Mediterranean cuisine. The oil is also used for various cosmetic purposes. Even the olive pit is pressed and that oil is used for oil lamps and in the production of soaps and detergents. And finally the branches which are cut at the end of the harvest for pruning are used as firewood.

We have 6 indigenous species of olive trees in South Africa, some thrive on sandy dunes, or on rocky outcrops or in temperate forests. The largest of the species is  Olea capensis subsp. macrocarpa reaching a height of 35 meters. These trees are second in size to the Big-tree yellowwoods of the southern Cape forests and are just as long-lived.

Wild Olive berries
(Olea europaea subsp. africana)

The flowers of all olives are small, white and faintly scented, so one may expect their pollinators to be small, night-flying insects. In the case of tall forest trees, it is almost certain that these are as yet undescribed. The fruits are fleshy and in some subspecies quite large, so becoming attractive to at least moderately large birds, and mammals such as monkeys, bushpigs and elephants.

The  more well-known  ‘Wild Olive’ is Olea europeaea subsp. africana,   is a long living tree, drought and wind resistant, making it an ideal tree for our area, however care should be taken not to plant it too close to buildings, pools and paving as the roots are aggressive.  It’s neatly shaped evergreen spreading crown has glossy grey-green to dark-green foliage. The tiny, lightly scented white to greenish flowers (October to February) are followed (March to July) by small, round, thinly fleshy fruits (either sweet or sour) which ripen purple-black.

The early Cape settlers made a tea from the leaves and also used the fruits to treat diarrhoea. Other remedies included eye lotions and tonics to lower blood pressure, improve kidney function and treatment of  sore throats.

The hard, heavy and beautiful golden-brown wood is used for furniture, ornaments, spoons and durable fence posts. An ink is made from the juice of the fruit.

The fruits are relished by monkeys, baboons, mongooses, bushpigs, warthogs and birds (e.g. redwinged and pied starlings, Rameron pigeons, African green pigeons, Cape parrots and louries). Leaves are browsed by game and stock.

Olea europaea subsp. africana  is an asset on farms and game farms, especially in very dry areas because it is extremely hardy and is an excellent fodder tree.

Olea species  in South Africa:

Olea capensis L. subsp. capensis LC

Olea capensis L. subsp. enervis (Harv. ex C.H.Wright) I.Verd. LC

Olea capensis L. subsp. macrocarpa (C.H.Wright) I.Verd. LC

Olea europaea L. subsp. africana (Mill.) P.S.Green LC

Olea exasperata Jacq. LC

Olea woodiana Knobl. subsp. woodiana LC