Scientific name: Olea europaea
The olive tree, originally growing wild in all areas surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, is one of the oldest known cultivated trees in the world. It is believed to have first been cultivated around 8000 years ago from the wild trees growing in the area between Turkey and Syria. The result of this cultivation meant stronger, healthier trees and larger fruit which subsequently led to the extraction of the oil which was initially used purely for cleaning and personal hygiene. The cultivation then spread quickly to the rest of the Mediterranean areas and archaeologists found proof of olive oil production dating back as far as 6,000 years ago, in Carmel, Israel.
By the 5th century BC, the olive tree was so well established in Greece and the Aegean islands that cultivation began in Sicily where the trees flourished in the rich, volcanic soil around Etna. The cultivation of olive trees quickly spread to the southern Italian coastal areas before gradually spreading up through Rome and into some of the more northern regions. When the Romans were in power they cultivated olive trees in every territory they conquered and were responsible for inventing the earliest form of an olive press. The rich, golden oil became very precious and was now used to enrich food as well as in cosmetics and for massages. These multiple and valuable uses of this precious liquid often resulted in the Romans collecting their taxes in the form of olive oil.
The beautiful olive tree is hardy and has a long life, many trees are two thousand years old or more and have the most spectacular thick, gnarled trunks. Olive trees bear small, white flowers and will only flower after they are four years old. The trees do not bear any fruit until they are fifteen years old.
There are many different species of olive trees with some thriving in a particular area better than others. Just to set the record straight, there are not different types of tree for green and black olives; a green olive is simply unripe and if it is left on the tree to ripen it will change to red and then eventually very dark purple or black. To eat, the young, green olives are firmer, stronger tasting and less juicy whereas the riper, black olives are soft and oily. Most olive oils are made from a mixture of olives with a range of colours through from green to black in order to extract the tastes from all stages of the ripening process.
Olives are rich source of oils, minerals and vitamins A, E, K and B, but they are not edible straight from the tree and they have to be processed to remove the bitter tasting glucoside oleuropein.
The Olive Tree quickly became the symbol of civilization and peace and has remained so up to this day with the olive branch being used as a symbol of peace. The branches were used for the crowning of the champions on the Olympic Games in the past. This tradition was revived during the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004.