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Olive: an ancient, peaceful species.

As a symbol of peace and longevity, olive trees have many claims to fame. Whether one's an advocate of Darwinism or the Bible's theory of creation, the olive has played an historical role. According to the Book of Genesis, a dove brought Noah an olive branch, symbolizing the end of the floods as well as God's peace with man. Otherwise, olive trees are believed to date back to prehistoric times.

Olive trees can live for 1,500 years or more; the European varieties are among the oldest living trees in Europe. As they age the trees become gnarled. But even the oldest trees sprout silvery leaves each year.

The trees have always thrived in the Mediterranean area, first cultivated and then growing wild. Olive trees were brought to North America by the Spaniards, and were planted in California in 1769. Some of those original trees still survive today.

Spain leads the world in olive growing followed by Italy, Greece, Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco.

Twisted tree

The Mediterranean olive tree. Olea europaea, is a small, twisted tree famous for its fruit and olive oil. Its yellowish, brown timber is hard and smooth-grained with very attractive markings. It is prized for carving, turnery, inlay work, specialty items like walking sticks and small joinery.

Other olive trees that produces valuable timber most often grow in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The species Olea hochstetteri is also known as East African olive and ironwood. Olea welwitschii is also known as loliondo in Tanzania. Elgon olis is found in Kenya. All of these species are from the Family Oleaceae.

Heights of 80 feet or more are often attained, although most trees are heavily fluted and crooked. The wood has a pale yellow sapwood but a dramatic looking heartwood, pale brown with irregular markings and streaks ranging from brown to black. The grain is usually straight, but can be somewhat interlocked with a fine, even texture. The interlocked grain can affect its machinability. Cutting can be a problem and moderate blunting of cutting surfaces is common. Pre-boring for nailing is required. The wood will glue well and finishes beautifully.

Olive wood has high abrasion properties, which makes it a good choice for flooring where high traffic will occur. It is also used for furniture, cabinetry and paneling. It has a long history for use as turnery for specialty items such as spoons, bowls and fancy handles. The plain wood is used for more mundane items like tool handles. Olive is also a favorite choice for sculptures and carvings.

Olive dries slowly and has a marked tendency to check and split. Material that is rushed at the drying process will honeycomb. To kiln correctly, use a slow schedule. Experts recommend a kiln schedule of T6-D2 for 4/4 stock and T3-D1 for 8/4 stock. Movement in service is rated as large.

Olive wood has excellent strength in every rating category for wood. It gets average marks for steam bending, however, because the sapwood may be bent successfully to a small radius. The problem is due to resin exudation, which interferes with any larger radius steam bending. Olive heartwood is moderately durable and resistant to preservatives. The sapwood can be treated.

One species of note is Africa's Olea laurifolia. Its timber is used for outdoor construction purposes such as sleepers, piles and stakes. Olea africana from southern Africa is a locally used timber tree.

Olives belong to the Family Oleaceae, which includes more than 600 species of trees and shrubs. "Relatives" of the olive tree include ash, privet, lilac, forsythia, jasmine and osmanthus.

Purple fruit and olive oil

Among the fruitwoods, olive enjoys the reputation as being the oldest living tree. It also is one of the trees that can be moved by packing the root system. Even the ancient olives can be transplanted this way.

Olive trees thrive in sun and with warm but not humid temperatures; they do well in sunny California but not so well in steamy Florida. Olives yield fruit known as drupe, meaning it has a pit. Olives start out green, turning purple or black and wrinkling as they ripen. Some yield cooking or salad oil, medicinal oils, lamp oil and oil used in religious services.

The seed and the flesh of the olive contains the valuable oil for which most olives are cultivated, although the U.S. market for olives is primarily eating. Olive oil is made by crushing and pressing ripe olives; whole olive fruit consists of 20 to 30 percent oil. Producers use hydraulic presses to squeeze the oil out of the fruit under low pressure. This technique is known as cold-pressing and generates little heat so that the oil has the maximum flavor. Cold-pressing keeps the flavor, color and nutritional value intact and allows it to be stored for months without refrigeration or danger of spoiling. During cold-pressing, the first pressing gives what is called virgin olive oil, the highest and best quality of olive oil.

Family names

Olea hochstetteri and Olea welwitschii of the Family Oleaceae

Other names

East African olive, olmasi, ngwe, musharagi, loliondo, olivewood, Elgon olive


Up to 100 feet, although 80 feet is the norm with 15 to 30 foot bole and trunk diameters of 2 to 3 feet

Mechanical properties

Excellent turning properties, moderate steam-bending properties, interlocked grain can affect its machinability and moderate blunting of cutting surfaces is common. Wood glues well and finishes beautifully.
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Wood of the Month; evaluation of olive trees
Author:Kaiser, Jo-Ann
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Jun 1, 1992
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