By Kirsty Jackson (@kjjscience)
Olives, a symbol of peace and victory, are a tasty treat and make an excellent oil that is used all over the world. I knew that olives originated along the Mediterranean, but whilst on honeymoon in Athens, Greece, I was shocked by how many olive trees I saw. They were everywhere, lining the streets in the same way that Plane trees do in the UK. The soft squishy fruits were all over the pavements and the local pigeons had the shiniest feathers I had ever seen – I assume from their olive rich diets. The only other trees I saw along the pavements were tangerines, but I never discovered why this was.
There is an explanation for why olives are so prevalent in Athens that goes back to an ancient Greek myth. Athena, the Greek Goddess of war and wisdom, and Poseidon, the Greek God of the Sea, were fighting over who should be patron of the city. Both being Gods, they were very evenly matched and the people couldn’t decide who would be best. Athena suggested that each God should give the city a gift and the one that was deemed to be the most useful by the people of the city would be the winner.
Being a very dry city, Poseidon was sure he knew the best gift to give and he banged his trident on the ground at the top of the acropolis and a spring was formed. However, because he was God of the sea, the water was salt water and was useless to the people.
Then it was Athena’s turn. She banged her staff on the top of the acropolis and out of the ground an olive tree grew. Olive trees can grow on all the different types of Greek environments – dry soils, mountain sides and valleys – and provide a good source of food. The people of the city declared Athena the winner and patron of the city.
The olive tree is an evergreen shrub that can grow up to 15 metres in height. The leaves are silvery green and have a characteristic gnarly trunk which becomes broader and more gnarled as the tree ages. The flowers are small, white and feathery, and the fruit is round or almond shaped with flesh surrounding a central pip or stone. The tree likes hot sunny climates, is able to tolerate drought and can live for thousands of years
There are three main varieties of olives grown in Greece; Halkidiki, Amfissa and Kalamata, all named after the regions where they commonly grow. Halkidiki olives are grown in the north west of mainland Greece in the Central Macedonia region. They are large and pale green, and are often picked when the olives are young. The size and fleshy nature of this olive variety earned it the nickname “donkey olive”. The Kalamata olive is large and purple and is commonly used as a table olive. These grow in the southern region of mainland Greece known as the Peloponnese. The Kalamata olive tree is distinguishable by its very large leaves.
The Amfissa olive is one of the oldest varieties and can be found centrally in mainland Greece in the town of Amfissa near the oracle of Delphi. This olive tree produces both green and black olives, often simply known as the common green and black olives. The young green olives are pressed and used to make olive oil. The grove of Amfissa is situated on the slope of the mountain Parnassos and consists of over one million trees. The grove stretches out from the town down to the Gulf of Corinth, a distance of approximately 16 kilometres and dominates the mountainside.
Olives are not the only thing to dominate Athens. There are also many cats!
About the author: Kirsty Jackson is a PhD student at the John Innes Centre, Norwich. She studies bacterial and fungal symbioses with legumes and loves all things fungi! She also runs science outreach events. Follow her on twitter (@kjjscience)