Olea europaea

young olive tree


Olea europaea

L. 1753

pronounced: OH-lee-uh yoo-roh-PEE-uh

(Oleaceae — the olive family)


common name: olive

Olea is the Latin name for the olive, and for its oil; europaeus means, of course, European.Olea is cognate with the Greek ελαια, which in turn comes from the e-ra-wa of Linear B, the unexciting name given to one of the very first scripts about which we have any information. It was the precursor of classical Greek, and used, mainly in Crete, from about 1500–1200 BC; so the olive has been known to man for at least 3,500 years, and certainly for much longer than that.

This evergreen tree is the source of olive oil, and is of major agricultural significance in the Mediterranean region. It is a short and squat tree, usually between 8 and 15 m high. The oblong leaves are silvery green, 4 - 10 by 1 - 3 cm in size. Usually the trunk is gnarled and twisted.

The flowers are small, white and feathery, the calyx and corolla 10-cleft, with two stamens and a bifid stigma. They are generally borne on last year’s wood, in racemes from the leaf axils.

The fruit is a drupe 1- 2.5 cm long. In wild plants the flesh is usually thinner and smaller than in cultivated plants. The olives are harvested in the green to purple stage. There is a single seed, known as a stone, or a pit or a rock in American English. Olive trees seldom bear well two years in succession, and in many cases a large harvest occurs only every sixth or seventh season.

Olive oil has long been considered sacred, and was used to anoint kings and athletes in ancient Greece, besides being burnt in the sacred lamps of the temples, and used as the eternal flame of the original Olympic Games. Winners in the games were crowned with a wreath of olive leaves.
The olive tree has many mentions in the bible, among them that of the olive leaf brought back to Noah by the dove, to show that the flood was over. The Mount of Olives near Jerusalem has several mentions. There are also mentions of olives in the Qur’an.

Olives are now cultivated in many regions of the world that have a Mediterranean climate, such as South Africa, Chile, Peru, and parts of Australia and Argentine. They are also grown in a few places with temperate climates, such as New Zealand. The northernmost olive grove in the world is on Anglesey, off the north-west coast of Wales. Olive trees can grow to a great age, quite a few reckoned to be well over 2,000 years old.

There are various means used to propagate the tree, but most propagation is done by cuttings and layering, or from the suckers emerging from the stump when the tree is cut down. The yield from trees grown from suckers or from seed is usually poor, and so these are usually grafted on to hardier stock.

Because most olive trees are grown for fruit, the timber is not often available in lumber form, the orchard trees tending to me much smaller in size than those found in the wild. Many wood blanks and products sold as ‘olive’ are taken from the closely related Olea capensis, the East African Olive. If timber from Olea europaea is available, it is usually in the form of turning blocks, and is very expensive. The heartwood is cream or yellowish brown, with darker brown or black contrasting streaks. The colour tends to deepen with age. The wood is sometimes figured with curly or wavy grain, burl, or wild grain. It is fairly easy to work, although wild or interlocked grain may result in tearout during surfacing operations. It turns superbly, and glues and finishes well. It has a distinct, fruity scent while being worked.

Among the Lepidoptera whose caterpillars feed on the olive tree are:
      • the Emperor Moth Syntherata janetta; and
      • the Jasmine Moth Palpita unionalis.


Photographs taken in a Nelly Bay garden 2013
Page last updated 12th February 2019