No other food can rival the olive for its role in cultures throughout history. The olive tree is revered as sacred and immortal. Its branches symbolize peace. Its fruit is regarded as an indispensable food, and its oil signifies prosperity and purity, and has been an essential element in religious rituals across cultures.
It is generally believed that the first olive trees came from countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. It is among the oldest known cultivated trees in the world, being grown before the written language was invented.
The Egyptians cultivated olive groves, as can be seen from an inscription on a temple to the god Ra, from the time of Ramses II (1197-1165 BC), which told that the olive groves around the city of Heliopolis gave pure oil, the best quality in all of Egypt, for lighting the lamps in sacred places.
The Bible refers to the olive tree as the "king of trees" and the "tree of life." In the Book of Genesis the dove sent out from the ark by Noah returned with an olive branch - the great symbol of peace, indicating the end of God's anger.
The olive was venerated by the Greeks and the Romans and spread throughout their empires. A symbol of wealth and peace, the victors of both friendly contests and bloody wars were crowned with an olive wreath. Olive oil was much prized as an ointment and fragrant oil, and was an essential element of religious ceremony.
According to Greek mythology, Poseidon, god of the sea, and Athena, goddess of peace and wisdom, disputed over whose name would be given to the newly built city in the land of Attica. To end this dispute, it was decided that the city would be named after the one who offered the most precious gift to the citizens.
Poseidon struck his trident on a rock and salt began to flow. Athena struck her spear on the ground and it turned into an olive tree. Because the olive tree not only lived for hundreds of years, but also gave edible fruits, and was the source of the oil which could be used by men to dress their food, cure their wounds, and light their homes, it was decided that the olive tree was more valuable to the people of Attica. Hence the new city was named Athens in honor of Athena.
Even today, an olive tree stands where the legend took place. It is said that all the olive trees in Athens were descended from the first olive tree offered by Athena.
Spanish Missionaries brought the olive tree to North America in the 1700's. The first olive trees were planted in California at the San Diego Mission by Franciscan monks in 1769. The trees were planted throughout California with the intention of producing oil, but the lower-cost European olive oils won out. In the late 1800's, a housewife, Freda Ehmann and her son, Edwin began experimenting with new ways to market the olive, and she found success with the California-style ripe black olives she produced.
Today, over 1000 growers on 27,000 acres grow the olive in the warm inland valleys of California, continuing the long and venerable tradition of the olive. One of the newest regions of olives today, California has the largest olive packers in the world and its trees have the best yields.