Olives Tree finds unusual place downtown

Published 12:31 am Saturday, September 17, 2011

One would expect to see olive trees in Mediterranean climates such as Spain and Italy, but it’s a surprise to find one growing and producing in a walled garden in downtown Vicksburg.

“My husband always wanted an olive tree. He remembers them fondly from his youth in Jerusalem,” Mary Qasim said. “There were groves of them, and his family made their own olive oil.”

The Qasims tried to grow an olive tree when they lived in North Carolina. The winters there were just too cold for the subtropical evergreen to live, and it died the first year. They planted another olive tree nine years ago on the side of their home on Walnut Street. The tree lived, has grown to be 20 feet tall and is loaded with olives this fall.

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Olives are some of the oldest known cultivated trees, according to blueplanetbiomes.org. Scientists tell us they date to 7,000 BC in Africa and Western Asia. The Phoenicians are thought to have spread them into Morocco, Algiers and Tunisia. The Cretes and Syrians grew them 5,000 years ago, and by 600 BC they were widely cultivated in Greece, Italy and other Mediterranean countries. The Spanish brought them to the Americas. The hot, sunny days and slight winter chill found in California turned out to be ideal for their cultivation. Today, almost half the table olives and 2 percent of the olive oil that Americans consume are produced there.

Temperature controls their growth and reproduction, according to George Ray Eachern and Larry A. Stein, Extension horticulturists at Texas A&M University and authors of “Growing Olives in Texas.” Texas, in addition to Arizona, have climates favorable for olive cultivation. They mention that olives are different from other fruit-producing trees because they only set flower buds after exposure to cool nights and warm daytime temperatures during winter months, a process called vernalization.

Surrounded on three sides by high walls, the Qaism garden is better protected than most from the effects of winter winds that often damage cold sensitive plants. Their micro climate could be why they have had such success with this subtropical tree.

Olive trees will freeze, and young trees in particular need extra protection. Qasim recalls having to wrap their tiny tree the first winter with a quilt. They would wet the tree down first, then the quilt surrounding the tree in order to protect the tree from freezing temperatures.

The fruit is green until it ripens and turns a dark purplish brown before dropping from the tree. Olives cannot be eaten fresh because they contain a very bitter substance called glucoside. They must be cured or pressed into olive oil before they can be consumed.

“We were told you couldn’t grow them here, but we chose the toughest cultivar,” Qaism explained.

Their tree is a Frantoio, one of the primary varieties the Italians use in the production of Tuscan olive oil. It is self-fertile, meaning it does not need another variety to set fruit. The leaves are green on the top and grayish green underneath with tiny flowers similar to that of the waxleaf ligustrum, or privet, another member of the Oleaceae family

“We consider our tree a gift and we love that tree,” Qasim said.

They will be harvesting olives for several weeks, then curing them for their own table use. Some they flavor with lemon or hot peppers in addition to the brining liquid. Homegrown olives can be water cured, brine cured, dry cured or lye cured, according to wikiHow.com.

The Qaisms also grow a variety of fruits in their small garden space — blueberries, figs, lemons, loquats, apples, pomegranates, plums and muscadines.

Miriam Jabour, a Master Gardener and Master Flower Show judge, has been active in the Openwood Plantation Garden Club for over 35 years. Write to her at 1114 Windy Lake Drive, Vicksburg, MS 39183.•