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Olives growing on a tree

Cultivated around the Mediterranean for 5,500 years, olive trees can survive in arid conditions for an incredibly long time (some examples are 2,000 years old). You can see these majestic trees at the start of your journey into the Mediterranean Biome.

Botanical description

  • Scientific name: Olea europaea
  • Family: Oleaceae (olive)

Long-lived, many-branched evergreen tree up to 7m tall. Bark becoming fissured with age. Flowers off-white, fragrant, in panicles up to 5cm long. Fruits sub-globose, ripening reddish-black from green. Pollinated by wind.


Did you know?

The Mediterranean people knew of the beneficial secrets of olives long before the scientists...maybe that is why they grow 95% of the world’s olive trees and consume over 80% of the products themselves.
  • Ancient olive trees have considerable nutritional reserves in their woody parts, and these are mobilised when their fruit is formed, increasing the aromatic properties of the fruit and oil.
  • Around 10 million tonnes of fruit is processed for oil each year. Production is up but the squeeze is on to reduce chemical inputs.
  • The olive has many ancient mythical associations: its branch symbolising peace, wisdom and victory; the trunk standing for fertility and prosperity; and the oil representing the divine essence. Greek gods were believed to have been born under its branches. According to Roman legend, Hercules spread the olive through the Mediterranean. As he strode along its shores, his olive staff sent out roots every time it struck the ground. The Bible tells how a dove returned to Noah on his ark, bearing an olive branch as a sign that the waters of the great flood were receding. Garlands of olive leaves were worn by winners in the first Olympic Games, victorious gladiators, Roman emperors, and even Napoleon.
Olive tree

Where it grows

South east and south west Europe, west Asia, and Africa.

Common uses

Olives picked straight off the tree taste disgusting, so they are soaked in oil, water, brine or even a strong alkaline solution to remove bitter chemicals.

The oil from the fruit has a long history of use in lamps and anointing the brave; now it is used mostly in the kitchen and is thought to reduce cholesterol levels and deter heart disease. There is as much variation in taste and character in olive oil as there is in wine. The oil is also still used for massage and in cosmetics and soaps.

Spain is the largest producer of olives, then Italy and Greece. The average Greek consumes 22 litres of olive oil a year; in the UK we use under half a litre.

    The olives in our Mediterrean Biome

    Useful links


    • Panicle: multi-branched collection of flowers (inflorescence).
    • Sub-globose: almost spherical.

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