Humans have been growing, harvesting, and enjoying olives for thousands of years. We value them for their fruits and the oil we make from them, although not all olive trees bear fruit. The so-called "fruitless" olive trees are sterile, so while they do flower and are very ornamental trees, few if any viable fruits are produced.
If you are interested in growing olive trees for their fruits or oil, try one of the following varieties.
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Olives (Olea europaea) vary in color, texture, size, and flavor. All olives start off green and pass through shades of brown, reddish-purple, and black. The color of the olive is an indication of how ripe the olive was when harvested. The riper the olive, the darker in color it will be.
Ripeness also affects the flavor and texture of the olive. Green olives tend to retain a firm texture and a fruity, nutty flavor. As olives ripen, they soften to a meaty texture and a more complex flavor.
The "Alfonso" olive is a large, beautiful, purple olive from Chile that is brine-cured and then macerated in red wine and vinegar until they are soft, juicy, and tangy. The trees thrive in dry, almost desert-like conditions.
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“Amfissa" olives are brownish-purple fruits from central Greece. They are brine-cured to a mild fruity flavor. You will find them in both black and green forms. They are often cured in a citric acid brine which lends them a citrusy flavor.
Large olive trees can produce up to 100 pounds of olives each season. Expect 20 – 40 pounds of fruit from dwarf and semi-dwarf trees.
Harvesting olives can be tricky business since the trees are so large and the fruits do not all ripen at the same time. The fruits are generally harvested by hand so that they are picked only when ripe and the fruits are not bruised by falling on the ground. It is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor.
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Olives are large trees, 25 – 50 ft. tall. If you do not have the space or climate to plant an olive tree in your yard, you can always grow one in a container, indoors or out. Potting your tree will keep it a manageable size. They won’t live terribly long in a pot, only about 8 – 10 years, and you won’t get barrels of olives or olive oil, but it can be a charming experience.
Even in a container, olive trees can reach 10 ft. tall. You can keep your tree smaller with annual pruning or choose a dwarf variety.
The popular "Arbequina" olive from Catalonia is often recommended for containers. The fruits are small and light brown in color with a firm texture and mild, fruity taste. Arbequina olives make a very fruity olive oil.
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“Beldi,” a Moroccan olive, is dry-cured and then packed in oil, to intensify its flavor. “Beldi” olives are small in size, but chewy and rich in flavor. This olive can be hard to find because Morocco does not export many of its olives.
Raw olives are too bitter to eat. The fruits are cured by one of several ways, to become palatable.
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- Brine-curing is used for fully ripe olives. They are soaked in salt water for up to one year, which sweetens them.
- Water-curing is not often done because it takes so long. The olives are continually rinsed in fresh water. More commonly they are started in a water bath and finished off by salt-curing.
- Dry-curing involves packing olives in salt and leaving them to sit for at least a month. The salt removes the moisture from the olives and much of the bitterness. The salt is then removed and the wrinkled olives are soaked in olive oil.
- Oil-curing takes the dry-cured olives and soaks them in olive oil for a few more months until they are softened.
- Lye-curing is what most commercial olive producers use because it is quick and inexpensive. Raw olives are dropped into a lye solution, which removes the bitterness, but many people find the resulting olive bland, with a chemical aftertaste.
- Sun-curing sometimes referred to as air-curing, is the least often used curing method. The olives either ripen on the tree or are left in the open air to soak up the sunshine.
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The bright green “Castelvetrano” olive from Sicily is actually made from the “Nocerella del Belice” olive. It has a mild flavor and buttery texture. “Castelvetrano” is considered one of the best table olives and is popular worldwide.
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The Spanish “Gordal” is a large, firm, chubby olive that is a snack unto itself. The flesh is very soft and they are often sold stuffed with pimientos, cheese, or fruit.
Technically, the olive is a “drupe,” which means it is a fleshy fruit with one central stone that contains the seed. Peaches and cherries are also drupes. Olives have a low sugar content and a high oil content.
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One of the most familiar olives is the “Kalamata.” These popular Greek olives have an almond shape and dark purple, shiny skin. You will often find them preserved in olive oil and sometimes in red wine or red wine vinegar. The flavor is somewhat smoky and fruity. These are a good choice for any recipe calling for a black olive.
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The familiar large, green, Spanish olive you purchase is probably a “Manzanilla.” These are brine-cured and often stuffed with pimientos or tossed with olive oil and garlic. Just because they are the ubiquitous green olive does not mean they are not delicious. They are so common because the trees are so productive. However, they can be susceptible to damage from cold weather and the diseases olive knot and Verticillium Wilt.Continue to 9 of 11 below.
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Olive trees are considered subtropical. They tend to grow well in the same areas and climates that support the growth of wine grapes. Olive trees require even more care than grape vines do and they take much longer to mature. However, they tend to live and produce fruits for hundreds of years, so the time investment is worth it.
“Mission” olives are more cold tolerant than most. They are thought to have originated in Spain, but they have been grown in California since the 1700s when they were planted there by Franciscan missionaries. Whatever isn’t used to make oil is either brine-cured while green or oil-cured when black to create a fresh, mild-flavored snacking olive.
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A staple in southern France, the “Niçoise” olive is used in tapenade and, of course, salade Niçoise. They have a strong, smoky, herbal flavor. Although considered a French olive, these are actually Italian Ligurian olives that have been harvested at their mature dark brown state and brine-cured along with assorted herbs.
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Growing olives can be a tempting proposition, but the size of the trees, the number of fruits, and the work required to maintain a healthy tree can be daunting. Since your olive trees will probably outlive you, give it considerable thought before you decide to plant one or more in your yard.