Sturdy, ancient grace

Times Staff Writer

The olive tree occupies such a heroic place in history that it feels trivial, even sacrilegious, to describe it as an ornamental plant. But the slender gray-green leaves could scarcely be lovelier. No plant harvests sunlight so elegantly as the olive tree or has quite its magic with moonlight.

To the beauty, add stamina and flexibility. After 6,000 years in domestication (give or take a millennium), the olive tree is the most versatile plant available to L.A. landscapers. It makes a glorious stand-alone tree, but it can also be grown in a container, trained as a shrub, espaliered and run as a hedge.

In almost every instance it brings a lush solution to the city’s looming water crisis. You don’t need to rely on cactuses and spiny succulents. Tour what amounts to the public showrooms of L.A.’s landscapers, the residential avenues of Pasadena, Hancock Park and Beverly Hills, and an alternative water-saving trend is plain: the replacement of front lawns with small olive groves.


Producing fruit is the least of their jobs. In fact, in this setting, fruit is usually a nuisance, even a health hazard. The purpose of these trees is to absorb traffic noise, cool the air, rustle pleasantly in the wind and obscure the neighbor’s big ugly car. Relatively new breeds created in nurseries by grafting cuttings onto dwarf rootstock will do all this without blocking the upstairs windows.

The first challenge for homeowners who switch from lawns is weaning themselves from the hose. The trees need to be showered from time to time to clean off grit, but no matter how hot it gets, established olives should rarely, if ever, be watered. The plants come from the Mideast, where they evolved as the horticultural equivalent of camels.

They become borderline dormant in the summer, growth slowed to a near standstill to conserve water. They grow in the winter when it rains.

When olives grow, watch out. After each rainfall, they put out foliage so fast that new leaves are visible in days, sometimes within 24 hours. You can practically hear a grateful burp. These spurts are the olive’s quirkiest trait. Who would have imagined the stateliest tree of the ancients to be an excellent source of willowy green fill?

The only exception to the watering rule is for olive trees in containers. These will need frequent watering. But when the trees are in the ground, we should do as the Middle Easterners do: Progress from low to no water. Several hours with the hose on a trickle once a month should do it for young trees. Except in drought years, established trees should not be watered.

The most classical way to landscape with olive trees is to set them in a bed of good ground cover, say gravel, decomposed granite or pavers. But at the Beverly Hills home of Sue Smalley and Kevin Wall, a street-front grove of fruitless olives has been strategically thinned to feed light under the trees. Below them runs a shimmering collection of reflective plants: white iceberg roses, silver-leafed lavender and rosemary. Banks of star jasmine tumble over the front retaining wall.

Pamela Burton, the landscaper who recently refurbished the garden, says the icebergs are “so uncomplaining” that there is no need to swamp the olives to keep the roses happy.

It is jaw-droppingly lovely. However, beware before you copy fancy under-planting schemes. A small grove of fruitless olives put in as a children’s garden at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral is under-planted with grass. The water needs could scarcely be less compatible. Lawn is quintessentially British. Olives come from Iran.

Provided we don’t drown them, olives should flourish in L.A. Bugs will nibble at leaves, but they won’t get far. The only pest of note is the Mediterranean olive fly. The first invaders were spotted in the 1990s on the grounds of the Mormon Temple in Westwood. For the last several years, commercial growers from Ojai to Sonoma began spraying.

The danger for farmers is that cities will become a refuge for the pest. Home gardeners seldom notice them because they don’t harm the trees. Rather, they bore into the fruit, which forms in May and is usually ripe by November. UC Davis Extension specialist Louise Ferguson asks that home gardeners cut a ripe olive in the autumn to see if it contains a larva or worm; if it does, the fruit will appear rotten and tunneled.

If homeowners have fruiting trees, the best thing they can then do is either harvest the olives and cure them in brine or knock them off the trees when they ripen in November and throw them away. Do not let the olives fall; rotting fruit provides first-class accommodation for flies.

For most Angelenos, the fruit is a liability for other reasons. It gets squashed under tires and feet and stains driveways and carpets. An arcane worry that crops up every so often in city hall meetings is that people will slip on them.

The more serious health concern has to do with pollen. Fruiting olive trees flower copiously, usually in May and June. Swallowtails like visiting the trees but, as a rule, these flowers are far too subtle to rely on insects as pollinators. Rather, the pollen is so light that it travels on the wind, making some heavy-shedding varieties of olive trees sources of allergens. The obvious solution is to choose flower-less, fruitless varieties. The one reputed to be pollen free is the Swan Hill variety.

Landscaper Judy Horton says that virtually all of her clients request fruitless trees. Some of these, however, will still produce some olives, she says, which should be checked for pests and harvested before they fall.

If you have an olive and see fruit ripening over the summer but can’t find it when the season ends in November, have a look around, particularly in fountains and birdbaths. You may find pits. A canny squirrel or possum may have been brining and eating the olives.

A good 5-foot olive sapling at a nursery should run about $100. Before planting, make sure that the tree is not root-bound; if it is, cut open the roots and loosen them before planting.

When preparing the hole, which should be twice the size of the root ball, fill it with water and let the water sink in. Mix the back-fill with organic matter, such as compost or leaf-mold. Beware the habit of commercial garden crews of sinking the trees in water wells. In fact, the trunk should sit ever so slightly proud of the soil line.

If it is sunk, soil washing back toward the trunk and leaves and mulch building around the tree will cause dampness and rot. This can kill the plant in a single growing season. If you already have a sunken tree, use large stones, bricks or concrete chunks to build a wall to hold back the soil.

Or dig the tree up and replant it. Most trees resent moving. Some drop dead at the mere mention of it. Olives can be planted most any time of year and take moves with equanimity. The clearest indicator of hard times among Central Valley olive farmers is the sight of massive old trees being trucked from olive country around Oroville to rich estates of Napa Valley. Steve Scott moves old trees for the Arboretum at UC Davis. He says that he has transplanted olives as old as 128 years, with 7-foot-square root balls.

If buying one, expect to spend from a grand to five grand per tree. Make sure the tree mover does not simply amputate the limbs and deliver an old trunk. The tree will fill out with quick water growth but will have lost its majestic shape. It will probably not recover the vigor, either, says Scott.

Having said that olive trees will tolerate just about anything but over-watering, it seems they also draw the line at the Banquo treatment.


The olive tree is rich in symbolism: When Athena drove her spear into the ground on the Acropolis, one sprang from the spot. When God needed to signal the end of his wrath, he sent an olive branch. And though L.A.’s needs for a cool, whispering tree may seem mundane by comparison, the olive is also here.



Planting pretty


When is success a fruitless pursuit? When you are planting olive trees in the city, where fallen olives and pollen can both be problems. A guide to trees, resources and references:


Little Ollie: shrub olive with dark green leaves, produces almost no fruit, good for hedges. Grows 10 to 12 feet tall.

Majestic Beauty: similar dark green leaves as Little Ollie. To 25 feet tall.

Swan Hill: good height and produces no pollen. The olive for allergy sufferers. To 25 feet tall.

Wilsoni: tall, fruitless specimen tree.


Curing and pressing: Those who want to make oil may take their fruit to a number of presses. For a guide to these, along with sources for home pressing and canning equipment, go online to

Organizations: For guides to nurseries, agricultural updates and events, contact the California Olive Oil Council, P.O. Box 7520, Berkeley, CA 94707; (888) 718-9830; and

Book: Judith Taylor’s authoritative history, “The Olive in California,” Ten Speed Press, $32.50.