Olive, a worthy holiday tree

This undated photo shows an olive tree growing in New Paltz, NY. As a symbol of peace and a native of Biblical regions, an olive tree is a good candidate for a holiday tree — and, it grows well as a houseplant. (Lee Reich via AP)

How about an olive tree for a holiday tree? I’m not suggesting olive to replace spruces, firs and other conifers that are our traditional holiday trees. But an olive tree, which symbolizes peace and is a tree you actually would find growing in Jerusalem, is an appropriate accompaniment to the holiday season.

And you could grow your own olive tree as a houseplant.

A CASE FOR OLIVES

You might be thinking that an olive tree would grow too large to keep year after year as a holiday houseplant. Well, so would many other houseplants, including such tropical trees as schefflera, rubber tree and weeping fig, if left to their own devices.

All these trees are kept to Lilliputian proportions by having their roots periodically trimmed back, so they’re not cramped in their pots. Their stems likewise need to be occasionally lopped back to keep them visually in proportion to the size of their pots, and of the room. Less than ideal growing conditions, unavoidable indoors, also helps slow their growth.

An olive tree is better adapted to living indoors than are the many houseplants that come from lush, tropical forests. On the dry hillsides of the Mediterranean, where olives are native, their deep roots do have access to water. But for much of the year, the air there is bone dry — just like in our homes in winter! Fertilizer salt buildup is sometimes a problem with houseplants, and olive trees also tolerate this in good stride.

GETTING STARTED

To get an olive tree, you could start with seeds. Seeds from pickled or cured olive fruits will never sprout, so buy seeds or squeeze them out of ripe fruits if you happen to be where olive trees grow or can have someone send you some. Clip off their pointed ends, sow them in pots, and then wait four or five months. Young olive trees will reward your patience with rapid growth.

Another way to acquire an olive tree is with cuttings, which, again, you can get if you happen to be where the trees grow, or you can have them sent.

Decades ago, I had an olive tree that had started life as a small, leafy cutting that I had permission to yank from the base of a small tree growing in a university greenhouse. The young sprouts root readily if their tops are kept in humid air with a covering of glass or clear plastic.

Other types of cuttings also root readily, and need less attention to maintenance of high humidity. Older, leafless pieces of stem can develop roots. Pieces of large roots dug from around a tree eventually send up shoots if cut off, dug up and then buried back in soil.

The quickest route to an olive holiday tree — in time even for this year’s holidays — would be to purchase a small plant. Arbequina is a variety recommended for its early bearing and early ripening of fruits.

NO SPECIAL CARE NEEDED

Once your new plant is up and growing, care for it just as you would any other houseplant. Check that the soil stays moist, because the stiff leaves won’t tell you when they need water — until they drop off as the branch to which they are attached dies back.

Dropping leaves are not always cause for panic, though; like other evergreens, olive’s older leaves do eventually drop.

You’ll like the way your olive tree looks even beyond the holiday season. The evergreen leaves are silvery on one side and darker green on the other.

Judging from the thousand-plus-year-old specimens that still survive around the Mediterranean, your olive tree could live a long time. And it will get more picturesque as its branching pattern turns craggy and its trunk becomes gnarled.

You could even harvest ripe fruit from your indoor olive tree. Give the plant a sunny window in winter and a vacation outdoors in summer.

No need to rush the plants indoors in fall. An olive tree tolerates temperatures below freezing, down to about 20 degrees Fahrenheit before damage occurs.

But you’re not growing an olive tree only for its fruits. You’re growing it for its beauty, and because it is a symbol of joy, happiness and peace.

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