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An Exotic
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The Plants
of the Palm House

Olea europaea

English name: Olive tree

Latin name: Olea europaea

Family: Olive - Oleaceae

Origin: Mediterranean Basin, Iran, Iraq

The olive is a short evergreen tree, or sometimes shrub, growing up to 12 metres tall. The trunk is typically crooked and  gnarled, especially in older specimens, and produces numerous offshoots. The tree has nodding branches and pale bark. The leaves are small, smooth-edged, and wide but lanceotate, or oblong, with short petioles. On the top side they are dark green; on the underside, silvery-grey; they are covered with twig-like hairs. The plant's foliage, by contrast, persists on the plant leaves for two to three years. Flowers gather in panicle clusters of 10 to 40 each. They are small and fragrant. The fruit is a drupe similar to a plum, up to 3.5 cm. long. Before ripening it is light gray-green, becoming blue-black after it ripens. The fruit pit (stone), brown and striated, contains fat.

The olive plant can live for a long time, even 1,000 years. In Israel, it flowers in April and May. It already begins to bear fruit at the age of 4 or 5 years and continues to do so all its life, being most productive between the ages of 30 and 40. The plant is not demanding, growing and bearing fruit even on  barren, stony soils of hill and mountain slopes. It can survive in warm climates, in areas with little rainfall, often in semi-arid conditions, thanks to its strong and well developed root system.

The plant has a range of uses. The fruit, though edible even when raw, does not last long and must be conserved in salt or brine, dried, or marinated in vinegar or lactic acid. Before being stored they are often pitted; in place of the pits they are stuffed with capers, papryka, ancoivies, garlic, almonds and cheese. The olive's most important product is olive oil: 80% of the world's olives are cultivated for this purpose. The best varieties of olive oil are used as a high-quality food fat. The lower-grade varieties serve in the production of soaps and cosmetics.  Olive oil is used to cleanse sensitive skin and to protect dry and flabby skin, both in its unprocessed forms and in facial treatments, creams and other cosmetic applications. Olive wood  is fairly durable, easy to polish, not brittle, and thus can be worked on by all types of tools, especially cutting tools. It is used in wood carving and sculpture, in both turned and milled products. In the first temple in Jerusalem, for example, cherubim were carved from it (1 Kings 6: 31-34).

Lower-quality kinds of olive oil are used as fuel. In Biblical times, olive oil was used everyday as a source of light for oil lamps (Matthew 25: 1-9), as well as to light the candles of the menorah in the temple at Jerusalem (Exodus 27: 20). The olive tree is also grown as a decorative plant, suitable for cultivation indoors in the bonsai style.

Olea europaea