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Master Gardener Journal  

B O O K   R E V I E W

The Olive in California: History of an Immigrant Tree

by Candice Sherrill,
Master Gardener

Judith M. Taylor, M.D.
Ten Speed Press, 2000
316 pages, $32.50

This unique book has much the same feel to it as Industry on Parade, a weekly program from the early days of television that took viewers inside America's factories and showed them how goods were manufactured. By the same token, history buffs, botany hounds, and good cooks will find a great deal to enjoy in this extremely well researched volume by Dr. Taylor, an English-born neurologist.

In her introduction, Dr. Taylor writes about olives: "No other food of equal or greater antiquity--with the possible exception of the grape--is surrounded by the same aura of myth and romance." She then goes on to share many fascinating examples of the olive tree's importance in ancient mythology as well as in the roots of many of the world's religions.

She documents the slow spread of olive tree cultivation from its beginnings in ancient Iran and Turkistan, across Greece and the rest of the Mediterranean, and finally into Spain. From there, she chronicles how the olive tree found its way from Spain to the Caribbean, then into Mexico, and finally to California with early Franciscan monks establishing missions in the 1500s and 1600s.

In the early days, commercial olive production was mostly geared toward the manufacture of lamp oil and machinery lubricants. Then in the early 20th century, the California Olive Association was established, and the production of canned olives and processed olive oil came to the fore.

Covered at length is the association's role in creating a demand throughout the U.S. for California olives, and its important role--after a disastrous outbreak of botulism caused by canned olives--in discovering how commercial canners could put an end to this age-old scourge once and for all.

The Olive in California contains many historical photographs: the major players involved in the growth of California's olive industry, early olive groves (including one photo by Ansel Adams), and some good examples of the equipment used in commercial production. Readers should also appreciate the many botanical prints scattered throughout the chapters.

There are several short sidebars covering such interesting topics as whether the first trees in California were more likely to have been grown from seed or seedlings, the hobby of collecting olive oil bottles, and the differences between olive oil classifications. There is also an appendix that gives a year-by-year chronology of major events covered in the pages, and a longer one that lists the state's olive oil manufacturers from 1869 to 1996.

If this volume doesn't tell you everything you've always wanted to know about olives, it should certainly come close. As one reader succinctly put it: "Her writing style reflects a love of the subject."

Maricopa County Master Gardener Volunteer Information
Last Updated January 25, 2003
Author: Lucy K. Bradley, Extension Agent Urban Horticulture, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Maricopa County
© 1997 The University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cooperative Extension in Maricopa County
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