When I was growing up in Tucson, the most hideous chore at our house was picking up the zillions of shriveled little purple olives off the gravel where they had fallen from the big old olive tree. That tree was already big and old when my family moved into the house in 1968. Apart from some runoff from the roof, it has never been irrigated, and still it is an extremely productive and resilient tree. In that yard there were also several citrus trees, but they all succumbed over the years to varying diseases, leaving the old olive alone to shade and preside majestically over our entryway. Considering that a mature olive tree can produce 400 pounds of olives per year, it may have yielded 19,200 pounds of fruit since my family moved into the house, and yet it had never occurred to us to cure those olives and render them edible. We just despised having to pick them up.
Times have changed.
Olea europaea is an evergreen of Mediterranean origin. It is heat and drought tolerant, prefers poor alkaline soils, and withstands some frost. Olives are slow growing and can live up to thousands of years. Easily propagated from cuttings, they were brought into cultivation on the southwestern coast of the Levant 10,000 years ago. Phoenicians took them to Iberia, where bread, wine, and olive oil became the essential diet. Spanish colonists introduced them into the Pimeria Alta in the 1750s. Olives thrived so well under cultivation in colonial North America that King Charles III of Spain found it necessary to impose a protectionist embargo and in 1777 ordered the destruction of all existing olives in New Spain.
The towering olive trees on the University of Arizona campus are among Tucson’s oldest trees, planted in the 1890s by Robert Forbes, the dean of the university’s foundational College of Agriculture. He believed growers should adapt to the land (not vice versa), so for Arizona he experimented with crops such as olives, cotton, and dates from Mediterranean regions with similar climates and soil types. While both cotton and dates became successful cash crops for Arizona, olives never really took off. Producers couldn’t compete with the low price of imported olive products from abroad.
Today, the European Union spends billions of euros every year subsidizing olive production, which has become such a lucrative business that it has led to massive exploitation of a single crop system. Traditionally olives were grown in limited areas, but now are planted on every possible inch of land, causing environmental degradation and increased susceptibility to disease, such as the Xylella fastidiosa, a bacterial pathogen that is rapidly spreading throughout Mediterranean olive growing lands. In a sea of olives the spread of a pathogen like this could potentially wipe out the entire industry.
I recently visited an ancient olive grove belonging to my friends Juani and Salva in a small town in Jaen, Spain. Juani’s father was a professional olive tree pruner and her family’s olive grove is inherited from the Moors. Some of their trees are 600 years old and yet they were laden with hundreds of pounds of fruit. They showed me how with proper care and traditional pruning methods that ensure productive branches are never rough and wrinkly, but smooth and supple, the trees renew themselves and can remain perpetually youthful and productive.
Unfortunately for olive lovers in Pima County, it is currently illegal to plant food-bearing olive trees. During the mid-20th century many doctors recommended that patients with respiratory ailments move to places with arid climates such as Arizona. Large numbers of allergy-afflicted people did move here and their progeny may have inherited a predisposition to allergies. In 1984, when the Pima County Board of Supervisors passed the nation’s only ordinance banning the sale and planting of olive trees, Tucson had twice the national rate of respiratory allergies. At that time the value of producing food locally was not widely recognized. Is it time to reassess this ban?
With a pressing need to adopt heat- and drought-tolerant crops and increasing appreciation for the Mediterranean diet, especially the health benefits of olive oil, there are a few new commercial olive-growing initiatives around Arizona, for a total of 500 acres in Yuma County, the Gila River Indian Community, the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, and Queen Creek Olive Farm and Mill (the only olive oil processing mill in Arizona). In Mexico, since 1975, there has been a push to revive olive cultivation. In the region of Caborca, Sonora, there are some 5,000 acres devoted to groves for table olives. Olives grow best in USDA Hardiness Zones 9 to 11; the lowlands of central and western Baja Arizona range from Zones 9a to 10a. Olives will survive and produce with very little irrigation, although for mature trees approximately 30 inches of water a year is optimal. Many other tree crops, such as citrus, require almost twice that amount.
In Baja Arizona, olives generally ripen from October to December. The best time to harvest is when the skin is still firm and beginning to blush. Table olives must be cured to rid them of bitterness. This entails soaking them in a lye or salt solution, or dry salt. There are many recipes for seasoning olives once they have been cured.
In the fall of 2015, Tucson olive trees produced a bumper crop. My partner and I harvested many pounds from a few branches of the old tree at my childhood home. We tried several different curing methods: soaking in brine for several weeks, turning every day or every few days, until the bitterness was down to desired level; soaking in brine, rinsing olives and changing brine every day, or every few days, for several weeks, to taste; and covering with rock salt, until olives had released bitterness. The dry-salted olives need no seasoning, just a coat of olive oil. To flavor the brine-soaked olives I used what I had in the kitchen: a few cloves of garlic, dried oregano, dried cilantro seeds, cured lemon rinds and a couple of small chiles. I cut slits in the olives before brining, to let the flavor in, and topped off the jars with fresh water and a few drops of olive oil to insulate the olives from the air.
During our family gathering at Christmas we brought out our bottles of the first edible olives ever to be wrought from the old tree, along with some of our favorite olives from the Caravan Mideastern Foods store. We ladled each of the different olives into little bowls that we laid out in a row on the table, and hosted our family’s first annual blind olive taste-test. Although my partner insists I somehow tipped the scale in my favor, my recipe won first place. As I gloated over this triumph, I thought back to the despicable task of picking up the dreaded droppings from that old tree. I could never have imagined how I would eventually come to cherish it so. ✜
Dena Cowan is community outreach coordinator at Mission Garden, Tucson’s Agricultural Heritage Museum. The Garden has an exemption from the Pima County olive ban, and was granted special permission to plant olive trees collected from the UA trees that Robert Forbes planted in the 1890s. They are Mission and Manzanilla varieties, which Forbes determined were best suited to our region.