Saturday, 21 August 2010

The olive tree: a miracle of nature and a symbol of the cycle of life

An olive grove on a hillside in Crete this summer, looking out over the Mediterranean (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

For the past week I was enjoying the Aegean sun and waters, based in the Palmin Sunset Plaza Hotel outside Kuşadasi, and moving easily and joyfully between Turkey and Greece.

Back in the cold climes of northern Europe, what am I going to miss? I’m certainly going to miss the long days filled with warm sunshine, the beach walks along sandy Mediterranean shores, and swimming in the warm waters.

I’m going to miss the flowers, the fruit and the vegetation – the combination of warm sunshine and an abundance of water means there is a plentiful supply of peaches, grapes, almonds, melons, oranges, lemons, tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines, figs and olives.

In Greece and Turkey this month and last, I’ve started every meal, morning and evening, with a small plate of olives, from small crinkly, delicate olives to full fat, fleshy green ones. I suppose I truly miss the olive trees of the Eastern Mediterranean when I’m back in Ireland. I wonder, could I grow an olive tree in my own garden? But even if I could, I would still miss the impact olive groves have on the landscape.

Just like us, the olive tree grows and matures slowly. The olive tree has grey green and silver leaves that remain intact throughout the year. The olive tree wakes when the early Spring dawns, in February or March, and the tips of the branches begin to sprout between March and April. From April to June, the olive tree sprouts delicate yellow and white flowers with a distinctive scent. The flowers soon turn into fruit, and the growing fruit matures in September and October.

The fruit is ready for harvesting between September and February. When the olives turn in colour from green to purple or from dark pink to black, oil is now present. In the Winter months, from November to February, the olive tree sleeps and rests, and then the cycle begins once again. An olive tree that produces fruit in plenty one year, produces less the next.

Olives are collected by hand, often by beating the tree with sticks or shaking it, and collecting the fruit in nets spread on the ground below. Many families have owned their olive groves for generations, and trees are spoken of affectionately, tenderly cared for, even tended lovingly, as members of the family. And the realisation of this makes reports of the often-wanton, and sometimes deliberate, confiscation and destruction by Israeli troops of the olive trees and groves of Arab Israeli and Palestinian families sad and desolate news.

According to legend, there are two trees in heaven: one is the fig tree, “the tree of truth”; the other is the olive tree, “the tree of life.” In all the holy books of the Eastern Mediterranean, the olive tree symbolises holiness, abundance, justice, health, pride, victory, prosperity, wisdom, intellect, purification, new birth, it is the symbol of the important virtues and values of humanity.

The cultivation of olives probably began in Anatolia about 6,000 years ago, and olive trees have had an almost sacred status in this part of the world for thousands of years.

In the myths of classical Greek and Roman myths, the gods are often born under an olive tree. It is said the twin children of Zeus were born in an olive grove: Artemis had her principal shrine half an hour east of Kuşadasi in Ephesus, where the Temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the classical world; Apollo had one of his principal shrines south of Kuşadasi at Didyma.

The Greeks and Romans would grow an olive tree to honour their dead, and battle heroes and triumphant athletes were crowned with wreaths made from intertwined olive branches.

Table olives come in a variety of shapes, colours and flavours. Most of the olive oils on sale in Greece and Turkey are blended oils: olive oils with a strong aroma are suitable for salads; olive oils with bite are suitable for pastas and grilled meat and fish. But each part of the olive tree is a miracle in itself. The wood is used to make plates, spoons, forks and furniture. The oil is used as a dressing for food, for cooking, for fuel, for making soap and shampoo, and is a soothing balm when rubbed into the skin. The seeds are used for making prayer beads. Why, even the residue pulp can be used as fertiliser and fuel.

The Palmin Sunset Plaza has converted its hotel water heating system to use a locally produced renewable energy biomass fuel. This fuel is made from olive residue, essentially the solids that are left over after olive oil has been extracted from the fruits. This olive residue fuel is CO2 neutral, but it is not entirely odour neutral – although the smell of olives is totally harmless.

And so the olive, from tree to fruit, from leaf to seed, serves as food and medicine, fuel and furniture. The olive is one of the miracles of nature, it is part of life itself.