Olive History in the New World

Olive History in the New World
While olive trees have been grown since antiquity in the Old World, these only reached the New World within the last 500 years or so.

The plants were introduced to the Americas by the Spanish around 1500. In 1560, a shipment of olive trees was en route to Lima, Peru. However, at some point during the voyage, one of the trees was stolen. This plant was diverted to Chile where the species thrived. The trees were introduced to Mexico by the Jesuits in the 17th century. By 1600, they arrived in Argentina.

Olive trees were first planted in California about 250 years ago. They were brought by the Franciscan monks and planted at the mission in San Diego. Sources differ as to whether this occurred in 1769 or 1785 or possibly earlier. Some experts believe the first California trees were grown from seeds of Mexican olive trees.

The roots of the commercial olive industry in California date back to the late 1800s. By 1900, there were perhaps as many as half a million trees in the state. The fruits were mainly used for oil at that point.

Once canning methods were developed, California olive growers found there was a market for table olives. This occurred around 1898. At that point, the state began to produce table olives as its main olive crop. The first mechanical pitter was invented in California around 1888 by Herbert Kagley, a mechanic.

The black olives became very popular and remain a major olive product from California. Around half of the state’s olives are used for oil and half for table olives. California produces around 50,000 tons of olive oil annually. Culls that are unsuitable for table olives are used for oil.

Olive trees were planted in various parts of the East. In the 1760s, the olive tree was first grown in Florida. Immigrants from Minorca and Greece founded New Smyrna and planted the trees. Around that time, the plants were also growing on Anastasia Island across from St. Augustine. Growers in St. Augustine harvested good olive crops in 1867.

Thomas Jefferson was an ardent fan of the olive. He imported over 500 trees from Europe. In addition, he also planted 1500 olive pits in 1774 in an area below the Roundabout at Monticello. Despite all his efforts, only one of his olive plants survived the winter of 1775. The survivor arose from the roots of a tree that died.

During Jefferson’s travels to Europe in 1787, he wrote a letter to William Drayton about the olive trees he saw there. He wrote that “of all the gifts of heaven to man, it is next to the most precious, if it be not the most precious.” He noted that in the rocky Alps the trees grew where little else would survive in the sparse soil. The income from the oil supported entire villages.

While in Paris, Jefferson became very impressed by an oil lamp called the Argand lamp, which was invented by Francois Pierre Ami Argand of Switzerland. This gave off the same amount of light as six or more candles and used very little olive oil.

In 1755, ten olive varieties were grown in South Carolina. In 1785, the trees were so successful that more plants were imported by the South Carolina Society. The trees provided very good crops in South Carolina in 1869 and 1871. Plans for an olive plantation in Alabama by a colony in 1817 were later abandoned. On Cumberland Island, Georgia the trees bore good crops for many years before 1835. By 1854, the plants were also grown in Louisiana.

Olives were planted at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California on the terraces above the herb garden. Getty’s estate included a recreation of an ancient garden, called the Villa dei Papiri, located in Herculaneum, Italy.

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