Atop the Acropolis of Athens stands an olive tree that is a symbol of hundreds of years of dedication and reverence. Although this is not the ‘original’ tree honoured by pious Athenians over 2,500 years ago, it nonetheless stands in roughly the same spot as the original. The tree was an important foundation myth for Athens as it established the primacy of the goddess Athena within the city that would take her name.
Legend has it that Zeus offered a contest between Athena and Poseidon for the possession of Athens. Poseidon raised up his three-pronged trident, smashed it upon the hard rock of the Acropolis and out a salt spring sprang. Athena on the other hand produced an olive tree (Olea europaea), its rich fruits bountifully dangling from the branches. This dramatic showdown between the two powerful Olympians was immortalized in stone, depicted on the West pediment sculptures of the Parthenon.
The Athenians chose Athena’s gift and the olive tree has remained a central part of Greek life ever since for all of its profound qualities. The leaves have been used to crown the heads of victorious athletes, generals and kings, the wood used to construct houses and boats, the oil used to give fuel to lamps, rubbed into the toned, muscled bodies of lithe athletes, added to all food dishes and the olives themselves — a staple in the Mediterranean diet and a valuable export throughout antiquity and today. Even the iconic Athenian tetradrachm coins had the leaves of the olive branch peeping to the left of Athena’s owl.
We have 6 species of indigenous Olea trees in South Africa, some thrive on sandy dunes, on rocky outcrops or in temperate forests. Their fruits are not as large and plump as their European counterparts, thus making it unsuitable for harvesting or oil production, however some of the species grow into handsome and dominant trees, providing food for wildlife. The largest of our 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.
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 (such as pigeons and, where they co-occur with the trees – (not in the southern Cape – Hornbills), 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 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.
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.
Olea europaea subsp. africana occurs in all nine provinces of the Republic. 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 subsp. capensis (Occurs Western Cape, Eastern Cape & KZN)
Olea capensis subsp. enervis (Occurs Eastern Cape, KZN, Limpopo, Mpumalanga)
Olea capensis subsp. macrocarpa (OccursWestern Cape, Eastern Cape, KZN, Limpopo & Mpumalanga)
Olea europaea L. subsp. africana (Occurs in all nine provinces of RSA)
Olea exasperata (Occurs in the Western and Eastern Cape)
Olea woodiana subsp. woodiana LC (Occurs in Limpopo and Mpumalanga)