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Olea europaea (Olive)

I find myself in a bit of a quandary over this tree. I started the nursery in the late 1980s after a series of ferociously cold winters and at that time – as far as I knew – the only well established Olive tree in Britain was (and still is) in the Chelsea Physic Garden; and Chelsea is in the middle of London and therefore has the balmiest climate in the British Isles. Hardly surprising.

Then lots of people (including us) started importing Olive trees from Southern Europe and this all coincided with the fact we haven’t had a cold winter since 1987 and so now I’m asked why we put a red label on Olive trees because people tell me they’ve had an Olive tree in their garden for 15 years. (Red label means ‘not frost hardy’). You can see the problem can’t you?

People really like Olive trees but we’ve steadfastly continued to put red labels on them. I’d say the bigger they are, the tougher they are and as long as they’re in the ground (where they belong), they’d probably survive a severe winter although they’d lose most of their leaves until new ones appeared in the spring. They might not be very resistant to frost but they’re certainly tough. Most trees grown in the ground have their roots prepared over a period of many years to be lifted and moved. Without that preparation, they won’t survive but these big Olives are dug straight out of redundant groves with a digger, bunged in an enormous pot and seem to carry on as if nothing had happened. A remarkable tribute to the toughness of this plant.

Olives are invariably grown in Mediterranean climates throughout the world as fruit trees and therefore they always have their branches cut off to keep them low so the fruit can be reached. I once came across a wood of 80ft tall grey trees swaying in the wind in a long abandoned ranch in California. I’m the tree man and everyone looked to me for identification of these things. I was embarrassed at my ignorance until I remembered that I’d been told that the ranch had been abandoned in the 1940s and what were they likely to grow on a ranch in California? Olives. Huge and completely unrecognisable. This tree – I think – has the remarkable distinction of being the only tree in the world that is only recognisable IF it’s had most of its branches cut off.

Will it ever produce ripe fruit in this country? It’ll certainly produce fruit but do green and unripe olives have a use? I have no idea. This means that in Britain we have the luxury of treating Olives as ornamentals, rather than as fruit trees. An unusual climate that’s mild enough to allow Olives to grow (until we get another stinker of a winter??) quite happily but never hot enough for the fruit to ripen. This allows all sorts of possibilities in the Creative Maintenance department; Olives make particularly beautiful topiary. Dense, shapely and very silvery. Try it.

Olives need masses of light and hate boggy conditions in the winter. We’ve planted a monster Olive at the new nursery and because it gets a bit boggy, we just removed its container, plonked it on the ground and piled soil up around it. It’s very happy. So far.

I suppose you could always chuck a duvet over your Olive if it gets very cold or if you grow them in a pot (must you? such cruelty!) you can drag them into a shed for the winter.

For those wishing to know more, try Olives – The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit – by Mort Rosenblum (ISBN – 1 899791 36 1). Some friends who grow olives commercially in Andalucia said they’ve never looked at either olive trees or olive oil the same way after reading this book.

Propagated by cuttings.

N.B. When clipping several plants with the same tool, have a bucket containing a 5% bleach solution and swish your blades around for 30 seconds between plants to sterilise them. This will help avoid the chance of cross contamination of disease.

As with all woody plants, plant high, exposing as much of the taper at the base of the trunk as possible. Allowing soil to accumulate round the base of a tree can be fatal. Keep very well watered when first planted.

Hardiness traffic light green

Hardiness level Red

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Hardy in Atlantic Seaboard gardens, The Channel Islands, gardens in Central London (and other large cities) and conservatories.

This is only meant as a guide; there are some plants with red labels that would only survive in extremely favoured spots such as The Isles of Scilly or coastal south-west Ireland.

We're always on hand to give advice about plants and their frost hardiness.

Please remember that these coloured labels are only a rough guide.

General Point about Plant Hardiness: The commonly held belief that it's better to 'plant small' is perfectly true with herbaceous plants, but not necessarily true with woody plants. They need some 'wood' on them to survive severe cold - so plants of marginal hardiness in very cold areas should really be planted LARGER, rather than smaller, wherever possible.

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