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The Peaceable Olive

By Audrey Stallsmith

olive

But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God: I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever.

Psalms 52:8

Ever since a dove carrying an olive branch fluttered down to Noah in the ark, like a symbol of the new pax between God and man, both that bird and that tree have stood for peace. In Scripture, the olive is also a symbol of such good things as purity, prosperity, and happiness.

Its oil burned in the sacred lamps of the Jewish temple, whose doors were also carved from its wood. Brides and victors alike proudly sported crowns of its leaves. And the term "olive branch" has come to stand for any gesture of reconciliation.

According to Greek legend, the tree was the result of a contest between Athena and Poseidin over who would have the honor of naming (and ruling) a new city. Each presented a gift to that town. The best Poseidin could do was a war horse, but Athena came up with the olive, and won the privelege of naming Athens after herself! The tree was considered so sacred in Greece that a person cutting one could be condemned to death or exile.

Actually, olives probably originated in Crete. Seeds 8,000 years old have been found there, and the trees are very long-lived themselves--some surviving for up to 500 years.

According to Italian tradition, all they really need to thrive are sun, stone, drought, silence, and solitude. Sea air might be mentioned too, however, since trees near the coastline can produce up to twenty times as much fruit as those inland. "They are reported to love the sea coasts," John Gerard writes in his Herball, "for most doe thinke. . .that above sixty miles from the sea they either die, or else bring forth no fruit."

We have all heard by now that monosaturated olive oil is better for us than most other fats. Besides its many uses in cooking, it is a laxative, soothes ulcers and the gums of teething babies, tightens the skin, and cleans other greases from the hands.

Olives will only thrive where winter temperatures remain above 12 degrees, but they can be grown in large containers elsewhere. Their gnarly growth makes them good bonsai projects. And who knows? Maybe they will pass on some of that peace, purity, prosperity, and happiness!

Plant plate is from Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden Library.