Olives are one of those staples of Mediterranean cuisine, all across the south of Europe and North Africa, they have a way of creeping into all sorts of nutritious and delicious diets. From Spain to Greece. From Turkey to Egypt. From Libya to Morocco to Portugal.
There’s no country around the Southern European coastline that’s not affected by olives in one way or another. Whether eaten as part of a salad on its own, or turned into delicious olive oil or spread, or its wood used in cookware and cutlery, olive trees have a surprising amount of ways they can be used in.
Olives and olive trees have a deep and complex relationship with the regions they have grown in. Growing originally in Asia Minor, and potentially as old as 40 million years ago as a species, olive plants have been around longer than even the Mediterranean itself!
And with a history of being cultivated as old as 7000 years ago, they have been a part of our diets almost as long as human civilization has ever existed.
And with some olive trees in nature coming in at almost 3 and a half thousand years old, these plants certainly stick around! If you’re wandering around the Mediterranean, and happen to come across a wild olive tree, chances are that it could be hundreds of years old.
Olives can be a hardy tree, but they also need a lot of care and attention to grow, like any plant. Not to mention the sheer variety of a tree that has been around for so long, all of them grown for different purposes. It can be tough trying to find the kind of olive tree you want to grow.
That’s why we’ve compiled this handy little guide to the kinds of olive plants you’ll find out there. We’ll go through a couple of general tips you’ll want to keep in mind when planting and growing an olive plant. We’ve also included details like where certain tree types are from, what conditions they grow in, what the olives themselves are like, what they’re normally used in, and a couple of extra facts that might help you narrow down your search.
With that out of the way, let’s get started!
Originally hailing from Catalonia in Northeast Spain, this kind of olive plant is probably one of the most common out there. A fairly cold-tolerant when compared to other olive trees, this plant can also be kept small by growing them in containers, great for if your growing space is limited, or if you’re a bonsai enthusiast and looking for a new project.
When grown old and large enough to produce fruit, the fruit tends to be dark brown, which is pretty rounded around most of the fruit, aside from the bottom. Their flavor also tends to be quite mild when compared to other varieties of olives.
This is why they are more often used as part of olive oil, rather than in a salad when you have it as part of a meal.
Grown as part of a Spanish mission, hence the name, Mission olives were originally grown in California in the late 1700s. It’s one of the few types of olive cultivars recognized by the International Olive Council that originates from the US.
Mission olives are a tall plant, reaching anywhere between 40 and 50 feet tall when planted, and are a very cold-resistant type of olive plant, especially compared to other commercial lives in the area. The olives they produce are fairly small but have a low flesh-to-seed ratio.
They can be used for both cooking in dishes, and in the production of olive oil, but have to be harvested at different times, with oil harvest happening at the very/start of the year, whereas table/cooking olives will be picked a month or so before then.
Grown mostly in Andalusia in Southern Spain, the Gordal olive plant is a large olive plant that grows tall and very vigorously, and can be cultivated quite well from an original root cutting. They are quite vulnerable to pest infestations like fleas, as well as diseases from fungi like Anthracnose. This is mainly an issue in Andalusia, though, where most of these kinds of this tree are grown.
The olives that are grown from this plant are very large, and almost have a citrus quality to their taste when they are ripe. Because they do not produce a lot of oil, they are very rarely used in making oil, and almost always served at the table as part of a dish or salad.
A French variety of olive, the Picholine olive, is the most common type of olive in its country of origin. Although originally grown in Gard in the south of the country, it is now grown in many countries around the world, including Morocco, Chile, and the United States. This cultivar tends to be a medium-sized tree, that grows well in places with a lot of sunlight and soil with good drainage.
The olives that this tree bears a good for both uses in a table dish and in producing olive oil though, much like with Mission olives, they need to be harvested at different times of the year. If left to darken, they are gathered for olive oil before the end of January, or harvested as green olives at the beginning of November.
Fun fact: Picholines is most famous for being used as a cocktail olive!
This olive plant is a native of the Tuscany countryside of Italy. Probably one of the milder kinds of olive plants, they grow well in open sun and soil that drains well but aren’t quite as hardy as other types of olive tree from places like Spain, where they’ll need much more watering than usual to keep up their usual rate of growth.
It is a fairly fast-growing plant, however, and produces wispy branches with leaves that are almost a shade of silver in certain lights.
They also produce olives just 1 or 2 years after being established too, which a quite large, and produce quite a sweet olive oil that has quite a strong aftertaste. Being grown in proximity with other kinds of olive trees will also increase the yield this type has, thanks to cross-pollination.
A staple of Greek cuisine, Kalamata olive plants come from around the area of southern Peloponnese in Greece. This cultivar can be grown in the soil of fairly poor nutrient quality, and in very harsh hot conditions, so long as it is well watered when in its growing season This tough nature is probably one of the reasons it is grown across the world.
The olives this tree makes are very large and have an almost meaty texture to them when eaten. Although they have a decent oil yield when turn into olive oil, they are more often used as food in dishes at the table.
Coming from central Greece, this species of the olive tree has been grown for centuries. They even have a protected designation of origin. They are cultivated using well-established traditional methods that have been used for centuries in the region.
While it is a cultivar that is resistant to colder conditions, and can be grown at altitudes of almost 2000 feet above sea level, it can quickly suffer if it is not watered enough. This combination of useful characteristics are just some of the reasons why this variety of olive is one of the most popular in Greece
This tree will start producing fruit just 3-4 years after it has been planted The taste of Amfissa olives depends mainly on where the tree is grown, with factors like when they are picked, soil quality, and altitude that need to be considered They are mos often considered table olives in their country of origin.
General Rules And Tips For Growing Olive Plants
It can be tempting when you start out looking for an olive tree to grow, to find a seeded olive, plant it in the ground, and start waiting for results.
As easy as this sounds, if you’re looking for good results within a few years, we don’t recommend this method. Not only do olive trees take years to start growing their fruit, but they will probably grow into a wild version of whatever type of tree you’re planting, rather than one grown with the specific traits it’s grown for, otherwise known as its cultivar.
So, if you’re looking for an olive tree, you’ll have probably 2 options:
- Start by buying an already potted olive tree, if you’re looking to plant it at whatever time of year you like, as long as the soil you’re putting it in is frozen.
- The other option, for a more experienced gardener, is taking a branch or root cutting from your desired tree, and growing that into the olive tree you’re looking for. That way, it will have all the traits you’re looking for from its parent plant.
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