The Olive Tree
Olive trees have been in existence for millenia. Whilst the exact origin of the species is lost in the mists of time, evidence suggests that they have been around for over 14 000 years (12th millenium BC), and most probably originated in the area around Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, through Iran to the eastern Mediterranean coasts of Syria and Palestine.
From the eastern Mediterranean coast, cultivation of the olive tree spread west to Egypt and the islands of Cyprus and Crete. In the 16th Century BC the Phoenicians encouraged the production of olives throughout the Greek islands and onto the mainland. It was during the 6th Century BC that olive trees became common further west along the North African Mediterranean coast, onto Sicily and southern Italy. The Romans then rapidly increased their spread, introducing olives into new territories as their Empire grew.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the rapid expansion of olive production in Italy stalled. However, by the Middle Ages, olives had returned to prominence, providing much of the wealth generated within the Puglia region. Today, there are estimated to be around 60 million olive trees in Puglia, some of which are thousands of years old.
The Yealy Cycle of an Olive Tree
The start of each year sees a period of dormancy for the olive tree. The harvest has been completed and any remaining olives have fallen from the trees. The tree remains dormant for a month or so, gathering the energy and resources required for the coming year’s activity.
This is the ideal time for pruning – and pruning can often appear fairly brutal. Much of the centre of the tree is cut out, along with many branches that grow upwards – this provides space for new growth and allows light to get right to the heart of the tree to aid the development of the fruit. Most trees require this more comprehensive type of pruning every three years or so, with lighter pruning in the intervening years to cut away any unhealthy or uneccessary branches as well as ‘suckers’ at the base of the trunk.
February – March
Once the period of dormancy is completed, usually at some point in February, the olive tree kicks back into life, with new growth appearing all over the tree.
March – April
During March and into April olive trees start showing flower buds, new growth that appear like miniature bunches of olives. These buds develop over the weeks, significantly altering the appearance of the trees, changing the dominant dark green colouring to show a lot more of the lighter, paler green of the flower buds.
At some point in the month of May, the buds open to reveal beautiful tiny white flowers. Again, this dramatically changes the overall look of the tree, but only briefly as the flowering period lasts a mere week or two before the flowers drop from the trees, forming a white carpet beneath the trees, along with vast quantities of yellow pollen.
Once the buds have flowered and the petals fallen from the tree, the olive fruit begins it’s development stage. Initially this is only the olive stone or pit, which gradually hardens before the fruit develops around it. It takes several months for the fruit to develop fully, swelling as the tree sucks up water through it’s roots. At this stage the olives are small, hard and green.
October - November
The olive fruit begins to reach maturity during October to November. In Puglia there are usually some significant periods of rainfall in September and October, helping the olives to swell in size after the hot, dry period throughout the summer.
The ripeness of the fruit is easily identified through it’s colour – green olives are unripe, whilst dark blue/purple (almost black) olives are fully ripe.
November – January
The harvest in Puglia takes place as early as November, and as late as January each year. The olive’s ‘ripeness’ when harvested can have a significant affect on the final olive oil produced. Generally speaking, the less ripe, greener olives will result in an oil with more complex flavours; whereas harvesting the olives later when they are closer to being fully ripe will yield greater quantities of oil, but with less depth of flavour.
And so the cycle returns to the start, the trees return to dormancy, preparing to start the process all over again!