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Plant some ancient history - and a really tough tree

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 10:22 PM

Ask anyone about great trees for Florida, and they might suggest live oak, crape myrtle or the tough little pygmy date palm.

Add to the list - or even top the list with - the European olive (Olea europaea). Often overlooked, it's what I call a "bullet-proof" plant. This tough tree has the tenacity to survive even the worst growing conditions and deserves much wider use in our landscapes.

The olive tree has been cultivated since ancient times. It's native to the Mediterranean region and the Middle East, where it grows even on the thinnest, rockiest soils without complaint. It's usually grown for its wood and fruit, which is also the source of olive oil. Many trees in the Mediterranean are reported to be 2,000 years old or older and are still producing crops.

Olives have played an important role in many Western cultures throughout history. The Greeks named Athens after the goddess Athena because of her gift of the olive. The Romans, as well as the Greeks, used olive oil as a skin- and hair-care product.

In the Bible, it was an olive branch that the dove brought back to Noah to show the flood had ended, and the name for the Garden of Gethsemane comes from the Hebrew word for olive press. It's mentioned as frequently in the Quran as in the Bible.

Olive branches have long been a symbol of peace and prosperity. On the great seal of the United States of America, the eagle clutches an olive branch and 13 arrows in its talons. The eagle's head is turned toward the olive branch to symbolize our preference for peace.

European olive trees are evergreen, with silvery blue-green leaves. Their medium height - 25 to 40 feet - make them a good choice for residential yards and commercial sites, like parking lots. They like full sun and are cold hardy into the low teens and extremely drought-tolerant. There are few pest and disease problems associated with olives, and they tolerate a wide range of soil types, though the soil should drain well - they don't like soggy roots. They're moderately salt-tolerant and moderately fast growers.

Some cultivars, such as Albequino, Manzanello, Mission, Barouni and Sevillano, may produce fruit in Florida. That's a plus for some gardeners, a minus for others. If the cultivar doesn't produce fruit, there's nothing to clean up from driveways and swimming pools.

European Olive is not the only tree grown in Florida known as "olive." There are also wild olive, Texas olive, fragrant olive and black olive, among others. Some of these are also excellent choices, but some are real trash trees, so make sure you know what you are getting. The black olive, for instance, is not a true olive tree and is blamed for staining whatever's beneath it.

Several nursery growers in our area produce olive trees, and they're available at many quality retail nurseries in the area.

When you plant an olive tree, you're not only getting a great tree for your Florida landscape, but you are also planting a bit of world history and civilization!


Landscape extension specialist Geoffrey Denny, assistant professor at the University of Florida, is an avid gardener and raving plant collector. He can be reached at gcdenny@ufl.edu.

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