Olea europaea L.


Tree 5-10 m or more tall, slow growing, becoming gnarled with age. Leaves oblong to elliptic, to about 6 cm long and 3 cm wide, the tip hooked or pointed, lower surface with a layer of silvery to orange or gold scales; margins rolled under. Flower clusters to about 5 cm long. Flowers greenish to cream, the lobes bent back at flowering. Fruit mostly 1-2.5 cm long, fleshy, waxy blue-black when ripe.


Trees bear fruit after 6 years and will last about 50 years in production. The major areas of commercial production are in warm, dry climates such as that of the Mediterranean, especially Spain, France and Italy, but also California, S America, S Africa and southern Australia. Introduced to Australia for the fruits in 1836, where it is climatically well adapted to certain parts of the country.

Sometimes naturalised in disturbed sites and along watercourses. In SA, major infestations occur on drier foothills of the Adelaide Hills, in NSW along riverbanks south from Lismore and also in a few scattered localities in Vic. Seed is spread by native and exotic birds and foxes. The seedlings emerge on roadsides, abandoned pasture and in degraded bush.

Seed, semi-hardwood cuttings and layers.

Olive oil is used for cooking, salads and fish canning, while the oily-fleshed olives themselves are eaten fresh or preserved, sometimes stuffed with red peppers.

INTRODUCTION:  A pair of trees survive on the carriage loop lawn at Elizabeth Farm, John Macarthurs, property at Parramatta. They are probably the oldest olive trees in Australia likely planted in 1805 or 1817.  

Market gardener and free settler George Suttor is often reported to have introduced the olive to Australia, the colony’s first recorded olive introduced by him in November 1800 as part of a collection of plants sent to New South Wales by Sir Joseph Banks (few survived) but it did not appear on an official inventory of imported plants drawn up three years later so Suttor’s single specimen probably died.

Suttor returned to England bringing back to Sydney in 1812 ‘several plants of the date, palm and olive in a healthy state’ with the support of London Colonial Office.

The olive brought to Sydney by John Macarthur in 1805 was a healthy tree in 1808 when John Macarthur’s eldest son Edward returned to England. Later, from Spain, he wrote to his sister Elizabeth on how to press and extract oil from its olives.

In 1816, a letter from Elizabeth Macarthur records ‘oranges, lemons, olives, almonds, grapes, peaches, apricots, nectarines, medlars, pears, apples, raspberries, strawberries, walnuts, cherries, plums, as well as loquats, citrons, shaddocks, pomegranates and guavas’ in her garden while.  

John Macarthur had set off for France and Switzerland in 1815 with sons James and William to study the cultivation of vine and olive. John and his sons arrived in Sydney in September 1817 with a collection of ‘useful plants’ including two olives from Provence. By 1822 Commissioner J T Bigge, sent to New South Wales to investigate all aspects of Governor Macquarie’s colonial administration, including the development of agriculture and trade, could report that the olive trees introduced by Macarthur were becoming acclimatized with olive oil from New South Wales a potential export to India or Britain, and that plants be sent on any future convict ships.

Though by 1828 the Sydney Botanic Gardens could boast several varieties of European olive trees and thousands of olive cuttings available for distribution to colonists, an olive-oil industry had still not developed. The problem was probably due to the British cultural background unfamiliar with climates where the grape vine and olive were cultivated.

However, when French explorer Hyacinthe de Bougainville visited Macarthur at Parramatta in September 1825 he reported ‘a very fine 20-year-old olive tree laden with fruit from which oil is manufactured’

Nearly 200 years later it’s impossible to know if the two surviving olive trees at Elizabeth Farm are remnants of those in Macarthur’s 1805 cargo, or perhaps from his later imports, but regrowth from the base of old trunks suggests an early origin.


subsp. africana (Mill.) P.S. Green, Common African Olive, from C and SW Africa is an evergreen tree 6-8 m tall with wide-spread, almost horizontal branches. Leaves to 10 cm long, 2.5 cm wide, tapering evenly to each end. Glossy dark green above, pale yellow-green and scaly below. Flowers white, in fragrant clusters; Oct-Dec. Fruit round, about 7 mm wide, 1-seeded, green at first, becoming shiny black; Mar-Apr. [O. africana Mill.] Naturalised in SA, NSW and Vic, mostly in coastal districts.

VIC: Ballarat (Ballarat Botanical Gardens); Burnley (The University of Melbourne, Burnley Campus); Coburg (cnr Sydney Rd and Urquart St, at the Holy Trinity Church); Footscray (Footscray Park); St Kilda (St Kilda Botanical Gardens, the Leunig Tree, commemorating cartoonist Michael Leunig).


subsp. europaea, Common European Olive, from the Mediterranean is an evergreen tree to about 8 m tall. Leaves generally larger than those of subsp. africana and with whitish undersurface. Flowers similar and also in axillary clusters; Nov-Dec. Fruit as long as 3 cm, 1.5-2 cm wide, 1-seeded, passing from green to purple to black; Mar-Apr. This is the subspecies from which many commercial clones, both for the table and for oil extraction, have been derived. The colour of an olive is simply a matter of ripeness, the black ones being picked later. Green olives, like other table olives, generally have a lower oil content - about 12% - and a less intense flavour, while those used for oil extraction are about 20% oil. As freshly picked olives are inedible, they are pickled or 'cured' in some way and it is this process that gives them much of their characteristic flavour. The olive grows best in Mediterranean climates (hot, dry summers, wet winters) often on limestone soils. In Australia the main growing districts are the Riverland region of South Australia, Victoria (Murray/Mallee and Sunraysia region, also in the NW as at Mt Zero near the Grampians), and the Riverina in New South Wales. Commercial cultivars include 'Azapa', 'Barouni', 'Kalamata', 'Manzanillo' (the green olives stuffed with the red capsicum pimiento), 'Mission', 'Nab Tamri', 'Sevillano', 'UC 13A6' and 'Verdale'. 

NSW: Parramatta (Elizabeth Farm, ptd. 1805 or 1817, probably the oldest living cutivated tree in Australia). ACT: Duntroon; Canberra (Canberra Theatre, adjacent lawns). VIC: Caulfield (Caulfield Park); Churchill Island (Homestead, very old); Footscray (Footscray Park); Hawthorn (entrance to Fairview Park, intersection Swan, Power and Riversdale Roads); Irymple (main street); Melbourne (Fitzroy Gardens); Mildura (Deakin Ave); St Kilda (Alma Park); Warrnambool (Warrnambool Botanic Gardens).

Martin , M.&  Crockett, G. 2009 (winter). Insites.

Source: Spencer, R. (2002). Oleaceae. In: Spencer, R.. Horticultural Flora of South-eastern Australia. Volume 4. Flowering plants. Dicotyledons. Part 3. The identification of garden and cultivated plants. University of New South Wales Press.

Distribution map
kingdom Plantae
phylum   Tracheophyta
class    Magnoliopsida
superorder     Asteranae
order      Lamiales
family       Oleaceae
genus        Olea L.