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Olive trees ... back again, and better.


Few trees are as at home in low elevations of California and Arizona as the olive. For many decades after missionaries brought cuttings from Spain to California in 1769 to plant for shade and fruit, this tough, graceful tree became the tree of choice in our arid climates. For one thing, it needs no water--repeat, no water. For another, it grows huge trunks, strong limbs, and clouds of fine-textured foliage--basically, it develops a wonderfully cool and friendly grace. The olive is a gem of a tree.

But in the 1950s and '60s, landscape mistakes temporarily tarnished its reputation. Mature olive trees from groves overrun by suburbia were transplanted seemingly everywhere--over patios, walks, lawns, driveways, and streets. And the falling fruit, which makes a blue-stained mess, brought disdain.

Now all that has changed. You can buy and plant fruitless trees, or--if you don't want to wait decades for these adolescents to mature fully--50- to 100-year-old orchard trees at the prime of their beauty. To deal with the messy fruit, just plant an olive-swallowing ground cover underneath.

The olive is one of only three good-looking big trees Californians can grow without water; the others are eucalyptus and oak. In outstanding drought tolerance, the three are matched. But the olive has neither the pests of the oak nor (once you plant a ground cover underneath) the mess of the eucalyptus.


Franciscan fathers planted the 'Mission' olive, which remains California's hardiest. Scores of other varieties came later. The three shown on page 59 along with 'Mission' have become the most commonly grown commercially.

As a xerophyte (a plant adapted to dry air and soil), the olive loved the arid West. The tree's leaves are constructed so that they lose little water through transpiration, and its small, shallow root system quickly brings it what water it can get. California's Central Valley farmers do irrigate olive orchards, which increases fruit production as much as tenfold. But landscape trees need no supplemental water at all as soon as the roots are established, which takes only one to three years (depending on the size of the trees being planted). This is true whether you plant fruiting or fruitless trees.

The fruitless varieties. In landscaping, the olive's fruit is mostly a nuisance. Spattered olives can be an intolerable mess--and how many homeowners have the time, patience, or interest to handpick the olives for curing before they fall? Also, pollen from fruiting olives bothers allergic people so much in some regions--especially Phoenix and Tucson--that a low-pollen variety (the fruitless 'Swan Hill') even makes medical sense.

As a result, since the early 1960s, growers have introduced six varieties of olive that produce no fruit at all, or very little. These are available, in selections varying from minimal to complete, in nurseries. Some so-called fruitless varieties either bear tiny fruits or bear some regular fruits only in some years. Others bear no fruit at all but are alleged (mostly by growers of a competing kind) to bear fruit occasionally.

Even the oldest of the large-tree kinds of fruitless olives have not yet lived long enough to develop the beautiful, massive trunks and branches for which olive trees are famous. You can find that patriarchal look of age only in the fruiting trees, some as old as 100 years.

The fruiting option. In the 1960s, California's commercial olive trees, not just their fruit, became a commodity. As an olive rancher would decide to quit an orchard, he'd find firms to buy his unneeded trees and dig, box, and move them to a landscaping job. By now the market has expanded to the point where it costs homeowners as little as $400 (but most often $1,000 to $1,500, sometimes as much as $3,000) to bring one of those old-timers in.


If you buy a mature olive--or have one already--your options are clear. Either you can pick the fruit every year to preserve or extract oil, or you've got to sweep, rake up, or pick up fallen olives every autumn through early spring.

The easiest solution is to grow a competent olive-swallowing ground cover beneath the tree. The other solution is spraying with a hormone that reduces or eliminates fruit set. Timing is crucial (spraying must be done when the tree is in flower, in midspring), and so is execution (the sprays can cause dieback in nearby plants, or even damage the olive tree if mishandled). Rinse plants beneath and beside the olive afterward. It's best to have a commercial sprayer do the job.

Finally, some homeowners reduce fruit set by spraying open blossoms with a blast of water from the hose.


Grow one of these fruitless varieties, or . . . buy a full-grown, fruited type


Introduced in 1961. Less popular than the others. Not really fruitless, but has tiny fruit (like privet's).

'Little Ollie'

Introduced in 1987. It's a big, dense shrub, very dark green, excellent as a hedge or screen. Bears almost no fruit.

'Majestic Beauty'

Introduced in 1985. Airy- and fluffy-looking, it's also suitable for a hedge or screen. Bears almost no fruit.

'Skylark Dwarf'

Introduced in 1969. Typically a multiple-trunked, large, compact shrub. Sets a very small crop some years.

'Swan Hill'

From Swan Hill, Victoria, Australia. Introduced to California and Arizona nurseries in 1972. Its leaves are a deep green. Bears no fruit.


Introduced in 1979. It was discovered in a grove of Manzanillo olives. Bears no fruit.


Pretty landscape tree. Large fruit (small pit) bruises easily. Makes up only 3.6 percent of commercial acreage.


More spreading growth habit than most. Somewhat apple-shaped fruit. Leading commercial variety (60 percent), so most often sold as a large tree.


Hardier than others. Tall tree with dense vertical growth. Medium-size fruit. Makes up 9 percent of commercial acreage.


Second leading commercial variety (26 percent), but losing favor with growers (fruit too large). Oaklike landscaping tree.

Where to buy full-grown fruiting trees

Following are firms that dig, transport, and plant (unless otherwise noted) full-size olive trees from commercial groves to landscaping sites (including home gardens).

Chapo Farms, 1512 W. Elliot Rd., Chandler, Ariz, 85224; (602) 786-3393.

Davis and San Tree Movers, Box 164, Bangor, Calif. 95914; (916) 679-2591.

Robert Denney and Associates, Inc., Box 2749, Visalia, Calif. 93279; no digging, transporting, or planting.

Ellis Farms, Inc., 1325 Borrego Valley Rd., Borrego Springs, Calif. 92004; (619) 767-5234; no digging, transporting, or planting.

Elmac Industries, 1170 N. Maston St., Porterville, Calif. 93257; (209) 781-7542.

Land-scape Innovations, Box 4349, Napa, Calif. 94558; (707) 252-4627.

Mel's Tree Service, 1523 Timberlake Circle, Lodi, Calif. 95242; (209) 368-4767.

Morales Olive Trees, 24631 Seth Circle, Dana Point, Calif. 92629; (714) 545-8011.

Nor Cal Trees, 22000 Silver Spur Rd., Palo Cedro, Calif. 96073; (916) 244-6278.

The Olive Branch, Box 2458, Santa Barbara, Calif. 93120; (805) 962-6272.

Jerry Rhodes, 2133 S. Jacob St., Visalia, Calif. 93277; (209) 732-9890.

Roadrunner Tree Farm, Box 1900, Borrego Springs, Calif. 92004; (619) 767-3310.

Gil Sariano & Sons Olive Trees, 217 Curtis Way, Anaheim, Calif, 92806; (714) 535-8241.

Swan Hill Nurseries, 6244 E. Berneil Dr., Paradise Valley, Ariz, 85253, (602) 228-7352; bags and ships only.

Tree Movers, 2190 Crittenden Lane, Mountain View, Calif. 94043, (800) 498-7337.

Trees of California, Box 13189, Coyote, Calif. 95013; (408) 264-3663.

Trees to Go, 3060 El Centro Rd., Sacramento, Calif. 95833; (916) 920-8733.

What to plant under them to limit the mess

Out of more than 140 ground covers on the market, these 26 are said by landscape architects and nurserymen to work best at swallowing olives. Each plant is thick yet permeable, lacks heavy stems olives might bounce off, and can handle root competition, sun, and shade. All are handsome companions to olive trees.

Drought tolerant

Acacia redolens Arctostaphylos manzanita Ceanothus gloriosus, C. griseus horizontalis Cistus, low-growing Cotoneaster, low-growing Hypericum calycinum Lantana, lavender-flowered Myoporum Polygonum capitatum Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) Sollya heterophylla

Needs watering

Aptenia 'Red Apple' Asparagus Cerastium tomentosum Ceratostigma plumbaginoides Duchesnea indica Ivy (Hedera helix) Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) Pelargonium tomentosum Ribes viburnifolium Rubus calycinoides Sarcococca hookerana humilis Star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) Vinca major
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Title Annotation:includes directory of where to buy full-grown fruiting trees
Author:Williamson, Joseph F.
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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