Olive groves of southern Italy



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Although it is obvious, it still needs to be said: knowledge of a thing is very different to direct experience of it. Almost always, when seeing something for the first time, one brings prejudgements or expectations, that invariably turn out to be at best incomplete, or at worst, wrong. Holding a tarantula in the wild revealed to me something about their phenomenology that no length of time reading encyclopaedias could: they are soft, and cuddly. Encountering common box (Buxus sempervirens) in the wild was as much of a surprise to me is was an inspiration, having previously reviled the plant. Seeing them in their anarchic state of expression, tortured by Pyrenean weather and geology, blackened by fungus and set within their natural plant community, I realised that within each constrained and humiliated Buxus hedge there were multitudes, longing to escape their dystopia.

There is a particular pleasure in this kind of discovery. What you thought that you had understood through information (and experience without proper context) was in the end just a flattened stereotype. The word epiphany is not too strong a description. Such an epiphany occurred for me with the humble olive tree (Olea europaea) on a visit to Italy in 2018, when I finally encountered it in traditional contexts.

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The olive is as much an idea as it is an organism. In the words of George Seddon, “the olive is rich in associations, religious, literary, historical; evocative of Homer’s wine-dark sea, the grove of betrayal, the bringer of news of receding flood in the beak of a dove, the symbol of peace, of Olympian victories” [1]. There are further associations, including culinary and aesthetic. The plant is so important to the west that in many European languages – including english – the word for oil is ultimately derived from the name of the plant and its fruit, oleum[2].

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In spite of these connotations, my experiences of the olive tree had been mixed. Growing up in a wet part of the world (northern New Zealand), I witnessed that at times they can make beautiful street trees, shimmering above grey pavement. But often the humid climate and rich soil do not provide the adversity that these trees require. Furthermore, there are underused native members of Oleaceae (the olive family) that achieve a superior effect, such as maire (Nestegis spp.) and oro-oro (Nestegis montana). Also, with respect to this plant, New Zealand lacks time.

Time is something that the Italians have. In the Salento, the southern section of the region of Puglia, an area called Piana degli Ulivi Millenari (The Plain of the Millenary Olives) is home to groves of trees as old as 3,500 years. Olives were introduced here – at the heel of the boot – three to four thousand years ago, and it has been a centre of olive oil production ever since, with about 60 million trees in the early 21st century.

My epiphany occurred when cycling through old groves of the Salento; their delicate foliage in combination with muscular, contorted trunks, the smell of dry heat, the subtle movements of air, the ethereal patterns of weeds and shadows. There is infinite variation in growth form, size, age, pruning regime, weed management, the latter being either ploughing, hoeing, spraying, or active neglect (each method having its own agricultural costs and benefits). Tree placement also fluctuates. In a move that should surprise no one, the Roman’s demanded that they be planted in a regular, evenly-spaced pattern, a change of style from the more relaxed layouts that had preceded their conquering of the region, which was ethnically greek at the time. However, one-and-a-half millennia of time, chance, and differing styles of management, existing bedrock, and collapsed trees have caused variability in pattern.


Tragically, an invasive bacteria, Xylella fastidiosa, was recently discovered in Puglia, having never being seen in Europe previously. Causing dieback and death in olives as well as many other crops, it is among the most serious plant diseases in the world [3], but has become fully entrenched in the region, forcing measures such as felling of olive groves, harsh pruning, and intensive monitoring to contain the spread from reaching the rest of Europe. By 2018 some farmers had lost two thirds of their trees with no treatment to halt the desolation [4].



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A second epiphany occurred once landing ashore Pantelleria, an Italian island that is closer to Tunisia than Italy. The island is home to perhaps the most bizarre and exciting style of olive cultivation anywhere in the world.

Every one of the island’s olive trees is espaliered across the ground, with many reaching no more than 40cm in height, forming wide masses of foliage that are daubed across the landscape. This method of cultivation shelters the plant’s flowers from the strong winds that regularly batter the island, ensuring successful pollination. It also takes advantage of the moisture that can sit on the soil in the mornings, preventing the plants from desiccation [5].Older specimens, in a futile attempt to grow upwards, form cascading, rolling mounds of tortured branches, up to ten metres in diameter.

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Olives in Sicily were far less abundant, due to a preference for pastoralism and cereal cultivation, and the orchards tended to be younger and more regular in pattern.

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[1] From Old Country, Australian Landscapes, Plants and People by George Seddon (2005)

[2] Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary on Perseus Project.

[3] According to the The Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International’s Invasive Species Compendium

[4] Much of the information about olives in Puglia is gleaned from National Geographic’s article Italy’s Olive Trees are Dying, Can They Be Saved? (August 2018)

[5] From the book I Giardini dell’Isola di Pantelleria by Francesco Brignone