Olives at the cutting edge

Some things never change – or so we thought. Olive cultivation around the Mediterranean has been more or less unchanged for 5,000 years : you take a cutting, stick it in the ground, and wait five years. No water or fertilizer are required, just insect pests to fight off. You prune every year, and harvest by hitting the branches with sticks. Repeat, for century after century.

Credit: Flickr user Abariltur

Other trees quite like these near the mouth of the Ebro are claimed to be contemporary with Virgil, who wrote about olives in the Georgics, praising their tolerance of poor soil:

First your stubborn lands
And churlish hill-sides, where are thorny fields
Of meagre marl and gravel, these delight
In long-lived olive-groves to Pallas dear.

Sic transit. In our drive north this summer, we went looking for posh olive oil for presents, and found our upmarket grove in suitably “churlish hillsides” south of Llerida – here:

This hedge-like planting is common in fruit orchards, as it makes pruning, spraying and harvesting much easier. Dwarfing stock has long been available for many fruit; the vigorous cherry succumbed in 1965.  Olives will grow as grafts (dixit Virgil) but usually are not, and he warns against letting the obvious stock, wild olives, into your grove (obscurely, for the fire risk). These are very vigorous trees, as here at El Rocio near Seville:

Grafting on to such stock defeats the object. So as in Virgil’s time olives are grown on their own roots from cuttings. The story is not a new stock but new varieties. Professor Giuseppe Fontanazza at the Olive Research Centre in Perugia (which for all I know may be a dystopian hotbed of vicious academic intrigue, soulless higher-ed managerialism, and layabout/overpoliticised/careerist students, but I prefer to believe in the bucolic Umbrian idyll) has bred a new dwarf variety, FS I17. Spanish colleagues have followed suit, selecting dwarf cultivars of Arbequina and Arbosana.
The owner of this grove, Hacienda Iber, is a high-end niche producer aiming at international competitions. Sadly but understandably, they closed the doubtless picturesque former onsite mill, and truck the crop to a state-of-the-art facility somewhere else, doubtless all stainless steel Swedish machinery. At this level, growers have to be control freaks  – some Aussie winegrowers harvest at night. Hedge cultivation gives you precisely that: control. The advantages hold for all producers on any scale, so I’m afraid the “timeless” Mediterranean landscape will now change.

I do not think Virgil would have protested; he valued the sheer skill of good husbandry too much. The Cordoba House nonsense will blow over in a week, leaving a nasty taste. Fontanazza’s work will last for centuries. It deserves Virgil’s praise and ours. For the Italian countryside he celebrated was and is man-made. There is negligible wilderness in Europe outside high mountains and the forests of eastern Poland. The aim cannot be to leave Nature alone, it’s too late for that, but to work with her to produce utility and beauty together. Everything in the Mediterranean landscape is a tool, and nothing is just a tool.


  1. Bernard Yomtov says

    If you want to see or photograph some lovely olive trees go out in the early evening when the light turns the leaves a shimmery sort of gray-green. A typical olive grove has row upon row of this, often guarded by stone walls. Very nice as sunset approaches.

  2. Keith Humphreys says


    Thanks for stimulating pleasant memories of Northern Italy. I remember a high end grove in Tuscany with a special olive that had to be laboriously hand-picked. The owner told us that the workers who did the picking were allowed to be paid in money or in a share of the resulting olive oil, and invariably chose the oil.