Gardeners' Dirt: Branching out with olives

By Helen R. Parks - Victoria County Master GardenerEdited by Charla Borchers Leon
Oct. 31, 2013 at 5:31 a.m.

This 200-tree private olive orchard at Six Mile Creek Ranch was planted and is maintained by Sam and Marta Clegg near Port Lavaca.  The trees in the foreground are the Spanish Arbequina variety with an Italian variety behind them. Note their height in comparison to the pecan orchard trees in the far back.

This 200-tree private olive orchard at Six Mile Creek Ranch was planted and is maintained by Sam and Marta Clegg near Port Lavaca. The trees in the foreground are the Spanish Arbequina variety with an Italian variety behind them. Note their height in comparison to the pecan orchard trees in the far back.

Whether you enjoy cooking or gardening, olives can be an interesting choice to add flavor and beauty to your life. The olive bar at your grocery deli can introduce new flavors to your favorite recipes.

Add Old World charm to your landscape with an olive tree that can withstand harsh South Texas summers.

From the Mediterranean

The olive tree was cultivated 6,000 years ago in the Mediterranean. According to Smith's Bible Dictionary, olive trees thrive in warm, sunny climates. Their twisted, knotty trunks grow 20-40 feet tall with a smooth, ash-colored bark and grayish-green leaves.

They can live to be quite old and grow almost everywhere on the shores of the Mediterranean. Almost every village has its own olive grove.

Physical characteristics

An olive tree resembles an apple tree. The flowers are white and bloom in June.

The fruit is like a small green plum in shape and size. It will turn purple and even black with a hard stony kernel holding precious oil.

The fruit ripens from August to September and is sometimes eaten green.

The value is in its oil, but the hard wood is often used for cabinet wood.

Even a gentle breeze can cause the dainty flowers to fall, or the enemy locust can cause a crop loss.

Major exporters/producers

While the three major exporters of olives and their oils are Spain, Italy and Greece, the United States recently entered the market. The Mission olive was brought to the Spanish missions by explorers and readily adapted to our climate and soils. Many varieties have become popular in Texas over the last decade and are being cultivated for their oils and in Texas landscapes.

Italy - More than 500 varieties

The largest olive collection (with 17 percent of the total olive trees and more than 500 varieties) is held by Agricultural Research Council - Olive Growing and Oil Industry Research Centre in Italy, followed by the collections of the Centro de Investigacion y Formacion Agroalimentaria Cordoba in Spain.

According to the Italian Catalogue of Olive Varieties, trees are analyzed according to three qualitative characteristics: vigor, growth habit and canopy density.

Leaves are judged by length, width and shape. The number of flowers per stem, fruit, pit weight and shape in the black olive stage provide additional analysis.

Spain has more than 300 million trees

Trade Commission of Spain in New York reports Spain is the world's leading olive oil producer. From the northern valleys of Catalonia to the southern region of Andalucia, which accounts for 75 percent of the Spanish production, the olive oils offer flavors that distinguish them from any other in the world.

With more than 300 million trees, Spain generates 1 million tons of olive oil annually.

Culinary uses

Olive oil of various qualities is used for different culinary purposes.

Virgin olive oils

Virgin and extra virgin olive oils are produced by mechanical means only, without the use of chemicals. Olives are pressed immediately after they are picked during late fall and winter, and, therefore, are referred to as "first cold pressed." Oil is extracted by applying pressure without heat presence for a natural low acid level.

Extra virgin olive oil is the finest and highest quality. It is ideal for drizzling, salad dressings, marinades, sauces, stews and soups.

Olive oil

Olive oil is a mild oil for cooking combining refined olive oil with virgin oils best used for baking, frying, grilling and sauteing.

Olive oil should not be mixed with other oils and reuse it no more than five times when frying.

Store oils at room temperature out of direct sunlight with a tight lid to avoid exposure to air and use within a year of production.

Some popular Spanish brands include Goya, Pompeian and Star. Of all the Spanish varieties, the more significant are Picual, Hojiblanca, Lechin, Picudo, Arbequina, Cornicabra, Verdial and Empeltre.

Reported health benefits

National Geographic in September 1999 reported virgin olive oil is the only edible oil that is extracted from a fresh fruit and consumed raw while keeping all its components and qualities. Extra virgin olive oil is the healthiest fat humans can consume.

Research indicates that the intake of extra virgin olive oil may act as preventative in the development of numerous diseases. For example, a diet based on extra virgin olive oil is said to regulate the blood lipid values, decrease blood cholesterol, promote glucose and blood pressure control and is good for your bones.

Besides, it has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects and is said to reduce the risk of thrombosis.

Olive oil is a monounsaturated oil of high nutritional value, mostly from the benefits of oleic acid. It is reported to help balance and reduce "bad" cholesterol, increase "good" cholesterol, help reduce arterial plaques and kidney-stone risk and aid in maintaining the density of bone mass in aging women.

Whether you enjoy the Food Channel or landscape makeovers, olive trees can add interest and flavor. Branch out and you may find the Tuscan influence will suit your taste.

The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or, or comment on this column at



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