By Melissa Wold, Mobile County Master Gardener, www.mobilecountymastergardeners.org
A trip to Greece last year included the requisite tour of an olive farm. Under an early-summer sky in Epidarus, a waif of a young woman took us through the process from planting saplings to harvesting the fruit.
Using long-handled tools, the olives are raked from the branches onto netting placed around the trees. The average yield per mature tree is 1000-2000 olives. An expert team of 3-4 workers can strip 30-40 trees per day. A cup of olives weighs approximately 4.7 ounces, and you need 11 pounds to extract one quart of extra virgin oil. You can see it takes a lot of olive raking to produce the necessary crop.
We then saw the processing of the olives. Your EVO is from the first cold press of the fruit. Lesser quality oils come from additional presses. We then got a history lesson from the family yiayia (grandmother). Olive trees can live for over a thousand years and still yield fruit. Yaiyai then dashed my hopes of being an olive entrepreneur. To grow from a sapling to a mature tree ready to produce fruit can take 10-17 years. Being a woman of a certain age, not sure I would be around to harvest my crop. So, plant your olive trees when you’re young!
Although mass planting in our area is not common, the olive tree can be a great addition to your landscape. The most commons species on the Gulf Coast is the Arbequina (Olea europaea ‘Abequina’). Its fruit is small, meaty, and fleshy. The olives have a light, fruity flavor and a buttery note to their oil. The Mobile Botanical Gardens often offers this variety for sale at their Spring and Fall Plant Sales. (Don’t forget, the 2023 Fall Plant Sale is scheduled for October 26-28).
Olives are an evergreen tree of the oleaecae family, with opposite and elliptical leaves. Leaf color ranges from gray-green on upper surfaces to almost silver-white on lower. The leaves’ scale-like hairs trap moisture. The stems mature from gray-green to gray-tan and have corky pores. As the trees age, their bark becomes irregular, and the trunks enlarge.
Plant your tree in well-drained soil with a pH up to 8.5. Olive trees are tolerant to mild saline conditions. Sandy soils are best for preventing root rot diseases found in wet soils. Avoid areas of standing water. Olive trees need sun but very little fertilizer. They are among the highest pest and disease resistant trees in the world. However, deer find them tasty.
Olive flowers have four green sepals, four white petals, two stamens and one pistil. The pistil contains a solitary carpel which produces an olive with successful pollination. The fruit (drupe) is fleshy with a stony seed. Drupes are generally green ripening to blackish-purple. Size, oil content and flavor vary by cultivar. Olives are usually not eaten raw because of their bitterness. Home processing recommendations can be found on University of California Davis Extension service website (https://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8267.pdf).
Pruning your tree is important but tricky. Olive trees never bear fruit in the same place on a stem. Therefore, new growth is necessary for flower production and fruiting. Avoid drastic pruning. After the fruit sets, thinning will increase the drupe size.
In all honesty, unless you plant a grove of olive trees, you will not produce enough fruit for pressing oil. But with a few trees, you can harvest enough to make tapenades for your muffalettas or to garnish a pitcher of shaken, not stirred, martinis. Oompah!!