Olea europaea L. subsp. africana / Olienhout / Wild Olive
Common names: wild olive, olienhout (Afr.), mohlware (NSotho, SSotho), umnquma (Zulu, Xhosa, Swati), mutlhwari (Venda), motlhware (Tswana)
SA Tree No: 617
Frost-, drought- and wind-resistant, the wild olive has beautiful wood for furniture, and is regarded as a small-fruited subspecies of the commercial olive.
Olea europaea subsp. africana is a neatly shaped evergreen tree with a dense spreading crown (9 x 12 m) of glossy grey-green to dark-green foliage. Leaves are grey-green to dark-green above and greyish below. The rough, grey bark sometimes peels off in strips.
Sprays of tiny, lightly scented white to greenish flowers (October to February) are followed (March to July) by small, spherical, thinly fleshy fruits (either sweet or sour) which ripen purple-black.
Distribution and habitat
This tree is found in a variety of habitats, often near water, e.g.on rocky hillsides, on stream banks and in woodland (where it can reach 12 m). It is widespread in Africa, Mascarene Islands, Arabia, India to China.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The Latin name for olive is olea; europaea = from Europe, and africana = from Africa. There are four species of Olea in South Africa.
The fruits are popular with people, monkeys, baboons, mongooses, bushpigs, warthogs and birds (e.g. redwinged and pied starlings, Rameron pigeons, African green pigeons, Cape parrots and louries). Leaves are browsed by game and stock. This tree is an asset on farms and game farms, especially in very dry areas because it is extremely hardy and is an excellent fodder tree.
A tea can be made from the leaves. The hard, heavy and beautiful golden-brown wood is used for furniture, ornaments, spoons and durable fence posts. An ink is made from the juice of the fruit. Traditional remedies prepared from this plant serve as eye lotions and tonics, lower blood pressure, improve kidney function and deal with sore throats. The early Cape settlers used the fruits to treat diarrhoea.
Growing Olea europaea subsp. africana
Propagate it from seed or from hardwood cuttings. Sow fresh seed in river sand. Treat cuttings with a rooting hormone. The slow-growing frost, drought and wind-resistant wild olive makes a good shade or screen plant in the home garden, on golf courses and elsewhere. It is popular for bonsai, street planting, and for use at schools, office complexes, and in parks. It is perfect for dry areas where it is an excellent fodder plant for stock and game and it has also been used to stabilize erosion dongas/ditches.
Don’t plant it too close to walls, patios or swimming pools, the root system can sometimes be aggressive. Always add plenty of compost to the planting area and apply a thick mulch layer (organic material, like dried leaves) to protect the soil surface. Water moderately throughout the year. This tree has a wide distribution in South Africa and grows in both summer and winter rainfall areas. It also occurs in very dry areas, and tolerates temperatures ranging from about – 5°C to 40°C. Once established it is virtually indestructable.
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- JOFFE, P. 2001. Creative gardening with indigenous plants-a South African guide. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
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- POOLEY, E. 1993. The complete guide to trees of Natal, Zululand and Transkei. Natal Flora Publications Trust.
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- VAN WYK, B. & VAN WYK, P. 1997. Field guide to the trees of southern Africa. Struik, Cape Town.
- VENTER, F. & VENTER, J. 1996. Making the most of indigenous trees. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
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Pretoria National Botanical Garden