Olive Trees, From Ancient Athens to Berkeley: By RON SULLIVAN

Special to the Planet
Tuesday October 12, 2004

We have a few civic olive trees in Berkeley—the ones in concrete planters on lower Sproul Plaza and a few on the borders of the parks strip along Hearst between MLK and Sacramento come to mind. Those are all fairly young. There are older ones around, mostly privately owned.  

Age matters in an olive, because as they age they get more interesting, especially around their trunks. Next time you’re around a producing olive grove, take a look at the tree’s bases. They get marvelously lumpy and gnarled, while retaining a smooth gray bark that looks like a match for a Greek promontory. They make great natural bonsai—in fact, people do bonsai them, just for that appearance of having survived great character-building vicissitudes. Young ones look gangly, but need only time, no special treatment. 

If you were watching the Olympics, you saw lots of olive foliage, those distinctive gray-green narrow leaves; the winners of competitions were crowned with olive wreaths, in homage to Athena. Athens was names after the goddess when, in response to Poseidon’s gift of a horse, she gave the founding citizens the first olive tree. (I’ve always wondered if they got to keep the horse, too.) 

It was a capital offense to cut down an olive tree in parts of ancient Greece, and I suppose the powers-that-prune here ought to be grateful that Elliot Cohen didn’t consult the original Solon when he drew up his proposed tree ordinance. A real return to the roots of Western democracy might have some interesting results, and I don’t mean just naked athletes.  

Olives are officially Olea europaea, the European oil tree. I like eating olives, but it’s clear from the specific epithet what people find most important about this tree. Olive oil is tasty and distinctive, but also versatile because it has so many variations. There are delicate Spanish cookies made with olive oil and a bit of cinnamon; there are also olive oils whose strong flavor needs garlic and lemon for company. The oil was used for lamps as well as food, and to treat skin and wounds and prevent sunburn. You’d think it would just promote sizzling, but it seems to have worked for those athletes. A marathon would test more than one’s muscular endurance, run under a Mediterranean sun.  

Oh—hair pomade too. And royalty used to have their heads anointed with olive oil, not Crisco. We do indeed live in degenerate times.  

The tree itself is tough. Its only problem here is drainage, and planting it a bit above grade works well enough against that. It’s drought-tolerant, and seems reasonably resistant to city dirt and smog, and very resistant to diseases. Its one drawback is that the pollen, like that of most plants with such inconspicuous flowers, is windborne and allergenic. (I don’t care; I have a youngster in my backyard anyway. It was supposed to become a bonsai but I let it grow up instead.)  

It’s probably one more symptom of an insane society that there’s a hormone spray that prevents olives from fruiting, and that people use this on city trees because the dropped olives are “messy.” 

I have friends in San Francisco whose problem in that regard was solved for a few years by another friend, who drove over with a stepladder and harvested their street trees. He found he could cure them just fine in big plastic jugs, layered with salt. He kept the jugs on an out-of-the-way shelf, tilted so he could drain off the brine, and it took a month or less to get perfectly nice black olives. There are plenty of more elaborate methods, too, involving water, lye, brine, or olive oil, and cured olives can be marinated in all manner of interesting herbs and spices. 

Olive trees are fun to prune, too. They take to a weeping habit, if you remember to let the weeping twigs “bounce”—that is, if you keep the upper and cut off the lower bit, so the flow of the branch is open, reaching out, not cramped. They look great if you cut off only the twigs that cross and tangle with each other under the canopy, and leave an open, airy umbrella.