The oleaster is a wild olive tree of the genus olea (though
the word "oleaster" also refers to various unrelated Mediterranean
shrubs of the genus eleagnus that produce small fruits). Olive trees,
wild or not, are in the family oleaceae and the genus olea.
Olive pits (stones) have been discovered in sites inhabited around 10,000
BC (BCE). As far as we know, domestication of olives probably did not occur
much before 4000 BC.
It is generally agreed that the wild olive (olea europea sylvestris)
and its domesticated cousins originated in Asia Minor (now Turkey) or west-central
Asia. Considering the vast variety of olives, and the exceptional longevity
of olive trees, it is clear that the major differentiation of olive varieties
took place as part of a long evolution tens of millennia ago.
Initially, oleasters were probably the only olive trees present in Sicily.
Though wild olive trees yield a small fruit, most botanists and historians
believe that the Phoenicians or Greeks
were probably the first to cultivate domesticated olives in Sicily, introducing
varieties which produced larger edible fruit. This would not exclude the
possibility that the Elymians (or even the native
Sicanians) might have raised olives. Much of this
is highly conjectural, but by the Greek era olives were common in Sicily.
There is evidence to suggest that --at least initially-- Sicily's Greeks
grafted branches of domesticated varieties onto wild rootstocks. Domesticated
olive trees seem to live longer than oleasters. Some olive trees are a thousand
years old, and several in Sicily are thought to be at least five centuries
Oleasters are superficially similar to the short olive trees grown in
Sicily, and compatible with them from that point of view. They still grow
wild in some areas, particularly in rocky terrain that is not easily accessible.
While oleasters are few, Italian law presently does not identify them as
a protected species. Perhaps it should.
Like olive trees, oleasters have a slightly blue-green color when viewed
from a distance. Their leaves are similar in shape, texture and color to
those of domesticated olives, though typically slightly smaller. Oleasters
can tolerate cold so long as the ground doesn't freeze. They thrive in all
but the highest regions of the Madonie and Nebrodi mountains and the higher slopes of Mount Etna,
and in the past were found throughout southern Italy as well as in parts
of Greece, Turkey and the Middle East.
About the Author: Maria Mazzaro writes about environmental topics.