The variety of olive tree growing in neat rows across Andalucia today is the Olea Europeae. It is sufficiently important to have inspired the Junta de Andalucia (Regional Government) to track every commercial tree. In fact each one has its own GPS co-ordinates and is carefully monitored by regional officials to ensure correctness for EU subsidies.
Spain is undoubtedly the world leader when it comes to olive production. This country dedicates 2.4 million hectares of land to this valuable crop. Italy and Greece are the other two world heavy weights with over 1.4 million hectares and more than 700,000 respectively. As a note of interest the trees in Italy and Greece have a slightly higher yield than those in Spain.
In terms of annual production, Spain cranks out over six tons. Italy takes second place with over three tons and Greece is third with over two tons. The other players in the top ten include (in descending order) Turkey, Syria, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria and Portugal. But olives are also cultivated in Lebanon, California in the United States and parts of Argentina and New Zealand, Australia and Chile, for example.
In ancient times it was believed that olive trees had to be planted near the sea in order to thrive, but modern agricultural techniques have overcome such barriers. One thing hasn’t changed, however, and that is the olive tree’s love of tough, rocky soil and craggy limestone cliffs. Perhaps surprisingly, these hearty trees produce better fruit and oil in poor soil than they do in rich, fertile earth.
No one can be sure that the variety of olive trees thriving in Spain today are direct descendents of the much praised versions that grew in Greece and Rome – or even ancient Egypt, for example. But it is supposed they are at least similar, and the fact that these historical trees are still cultivated does provide locals with a strong connection to past centuries.
It is well known that olive trees were cultivated in the south of Spain during Roman times. Numerous artefacts are testimony to the olive’s importance throughout the known history of the Iberian Peninsula – and these include old stone olive presses and other paraphernalia used to process this precious crop.
If you wish to plant an olive tree that will produce good fruit, be sure to consult with a local expert in your area. Olive trees need to be properly prepared and grafted in order to yield a decent crop. Many who relocate to southern Spain wish to grace their gardens with a beautiful, gnarly old tree. With some luck, it may be possible to locate one of the operations dedicated to saving centuries old olive trees from construction sites (for roads, golf courses and other projects) and then finding “homes” for them. Rather than purchasing the tree, the new owner simply pays for the salvaging, storage and replanting. Garden centres also offer well developed mature trees.