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biodiversity explorer

the web of life in southern Africa

Olea europaea (Olive)

Life > eukaryotes > Archaeoplastida > Chloroplastida > Charophyta > Streptophytina > Plantae (land plants) > Tracheophyta (vascular plants) > Euphyllophyta > Lignophyta (woody plants) > Spermatophyta (seed plants) > Angiospermae (flowering plants) > Eudicotyledons > Core Eudicots > Asterids > Euasterid I > Order: Lamiales > Family: Oleaceae > Genus: Olea

Olives on tree, Houwhoek, Western Cape. [photo H. Robertson ]

Olives stones have been found in archaeological sites dating as far back as 9000 BC, although only from about 3500 BC is there clear evidence of domestication (in the Mediterranean region). In order to make olives palatible, they need to be soaked in alkali liquid to extract a bitter glucoside they contain.

The name Olea europaea applies to both the wild and domestic Olive. The wild Olive or Oleaster has a disjunct distribution in the Mediterranean region, the near East and down to South Africa. Evidence of olive stones from archaeological sites in the Near East and Cyprus suggest that olives have been consumed since about 9000 BC although it is only from 3500 BC that there is clear evidence of domestication. Consumption of olives is not straightforward because they contain a bitter glucoside which is removed by soaking them in alkali liquids and pickling them in brine. Olives are most commonly linked to Greece and this country has a long tradition of olive cultivation and utilisation. By 1300 BC, Greek palaces had rooms devoted to storing jars full of olive oil.

Olive cultivars are normally propagated vegetatively either through rooting of cuttings or by grafting onto rootstocks. An olive tree can live for hundreds of years and with vegetative propagation used so extensively, many cultivars have remained little changed over thousands of years.

Although the primary area of Olive cultivation still lies in the Mediterranean region, Olives are also cultivated in other parts of the world such as California and South Africa.


  • Sauer, J.D. 1993. Historical geography of crop plants - a select roster. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.

Text by Hamish G. Robertson