If you’re lucky enough to have an olive tree in your backyard, you can bet one thing — it will outlive you.
Olive trees can live for thousands of years and occupy a unique place in the history of humankind. They also taste great! If you’re an olive fan or thinking about increasing the amount of healthy fats and antioxidants in your diet, read on to discover some fast facts about olives.
Fruit or vegetable?
Is the olive a fruit or vegetable? Well, they’re classified as a fruit but belong to a special category known as ‘drupes’. Drupes are fruit that have an outer, edible fleshy skin and a hard seed inside. Mangos are another example of a drupe, and despite the vast difference in taste, they are quite closely related to the olive.
Native to the Mediterranian but grown all over the world
Olive trees are traditionally found in the Mediterranian Basin, which is the geographic region that contains the intersection of Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Archeologists have drawn evidence from fossils that points to the fact that olive trees may have first appeared up to 40 million years ago. However, the fruit has not always been edible. It is only in the last few thousands years that humans have been able to pick and enjoy olives.
Given their hardy disposition, olive trees can now be found all over the world. They were brought to the Americas by Spanish colonists and there are successful olive farms in geographic environments as diverse as Japan and Australia.
Olive trees can live for thousands of years
The oldest olive tree in the world is believed to be in Bethlehem and is known as the al Badawi olive tree. It is an estimated 5000 years old.
While this might seem quite old, olive trees on average can live for at least several hundred years. They do require certain growing conditions — well drained soil, full sunlight, and a winter season that lasts at least three months. However, provided they are looked after well, you can be certain that your olive tree will certainly outlive you.
The colour of the fruit depends on its maturity
The fruit of the olive tree comes in a range of colours, from deep black to light green.
This colour refers to how mature the olive is. When olives first grow, they are a light green colour. As they age, this progresses from a light red to a dark purple before finally arriving at black.
The process of picking, brining, and drying olives can also influence their colour.
You shouldn’t eat olives straight from the tree
If you’re lucky enough to visit an olive farm, try and resist the temptation to pick the olives directly from the tree. Doing so is not exactly harmful to your health, but you probably won’t enjoy the taste. Raw olives are high in a compound known as oleuropein, which is a particularly bitter substance.
Once olives have been harvested from the tree, they undergo a series of treatments to make them more palatable. This is described as ‘brining and curing’ the olive. In addition to this process, olives may be stuffed with herbs and flavourings, as is the case with the very popular variety of lemon and pepper olives.
The olive branch symbolises peace
You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘extended an olive branch’ but why does the olive branch symbolise peace?
The olive branch has been used throughout history as a symbol of reconciliation and unity. In Christianity, a dove delivered a branch to Noah to let him know that the great flood had ended. In Ancient Greece, an olive branch was held by a person approaching another person of power to indicate respect and reverence. To this day, the coat of arms of the United Nations bears two olive branches surrounding a world map.
Olives form part of a healthy diet
The highly salty taste and texture of olives often leads people to believe that they are not particularly healthy. In reality, the small fruits contain a variety of vitamins and antioxidants that are essential for good health.
In particular, olives are quite high in vitamin E and monounsaturated fats. They have quite a low calorie content and almost no sugar.
While you shouldn’t necessarily enjoy olives every day, they are an important part of a healthy diet.
There are hundreds of varieties
There are an estimated 500 different varieties of olives grown all over the world. These varieties differ in size, colour, and texture.
Olives are grown on every continent, bar Antarctica, which accounts for the wide diversity in species. Some of the most popular olive types include Kalamata, Thasos, Manzanilla, and Castelvetrano.
Olives often also come seasoned and stuffed. Lemon and pepper olives, for example, are a very popular product that are filled with pepper and lemon. These types of olives are typically used in antipasto platters, served with biscuits, dip, and cheese.