Oleaceae - The Olive Family Part 1

by Rudi Adam

Shrubs or trees.

Leaves: opposite, simple.

Flowers: Bisexual, in many-flowered auxiliary of terminal panicles; all floral parts in fours; calyx cup-shape shortly four-Iobed; petals joined to form short tube.

Fruit: thinly fleshy, indehiscent.

KEY to the species OLEA:

  1. Leaves usually less than 1, 5cm - 2cm Leaves usually more than 1,5cm - 3cm.
  2. Under surface of leaves densely covered with small silvery golden or brown scales (a 10x lens may be necessary to see these) which give a brownish colour and sheen to the leaves; flower-heads usually axillary, occasionally also terminal ...Olea africana.
  3. Fruits about 10 x 5mm; trees without a gum-like exudate; usually medium to large forest trees up to 18m in height ...O.woodiana
  4. Fruits up to 2x1cm; trees with a characteristic gum-like exudate; usually small to medium sized trees… O.capensis

OLEA europea var. Africana - WILD OLIVE (SWARTOLIENHOUT)

A shrub or small to medium sized tree, 5 to 10m in height, occasionally reaching 18m; occurring in a variety of habitats usually near water, on stream banks, in riverine fringes, but also in open woodland, among rocks and in mountain ravines.

Bark: grey to brown or blackish, smooth to rough when old;

Leaves: narrowly oblong-elliptic, grey-green to shiny dark green above, greyish or yellowish with a dense covering of silvery golden or brown scale on the under surface; apex and base narrowly tapering, apex sharp-tipped; margin entire, rolled under and curved back from the midrib; petiole slender, up to 10mm long so the leaves tend to droop.

Flowers: greenish-white, white or cream, 6 to 10mm long, sweetly scented in loose axillary or occasionally terminal heads, 5 to 6cm long (October - February)

Fruits: ovoid, thinly fleshly, about 10x8mm tapering to a sharp tip, dark brown or black when mature (March to July).

The wood is close-grained, strong and very hard; the sapwood is whitish to pale brown but the heartwood is very handsome, dark reddish-brown or golden brown with beautiful dark figuring. It works well, takes a fine finish and is most sui table for high class furniture and cabinet work; it is also very durable, makes good fencing posts and in addition, provides an excellent pleasant smelling fuel.

The plants are drought resistant and frost-tolerant, but are slow growing; the commercial olive has been grafted on the wild stock with success. Our black tribes used to drink an infusion of fresh bark to relieve colic; they used an infusion of the leaves as an eye lotion for both humans and animals while a concoction of the leaves provided a gargle for sore throats.

The plants are browsed on by stock, but the leaves are said to be astringent. Although rather bitter, the fruit is edible and widely sought after.

OLEA europea var capensis - IRONWOOD (YSTERHOUT)

Often a bushy shrub or a small to medium sized tree up to 10m in height, but may be much larger, occasionally reaching 40m; occurring in bush, littoral shrub and evergreen forest.

Bark: light grey, becoming dark grey and vertically fissured with age; a characteristic blackish gum is exuded from bark wounds.

Leaves: lanceolate-oblong to almost circular, light to dark green and glossy above, rather paler green below although sometimes almost unicoloured, occasionally purplish-tinged, without hairs or scales; apex broadly tapering to almost rounded; base tapering; margin entrie, thickened and often very wavy; petiole often purplish;

Flowers: very small, white or cream, sweetly scented, in many-flowered axillary or terminal heads, 3 to 8cm long (August to February or later).

Fruit: ovoid, fleshy, up to 2xlcm purple when mature, said to be pleasant tasting (February to September).

This species has been divided into three subspecies, subsp. macrocarpa (almost spherical fruits) subsp. capensis and subsp. enervis. The wood of the subspecies Capensis and Enervis is rarely used, but that of subsp. macrocarpa makes a fine timber. It has dark brown heartwood and is attractively figured, fine-grained, hard and heavy and although it is difficult to work it has been widely used as railway sleepers, in bridge construction and for flooring blocks. Fresh mature health seed germinates well and the plants can be reasonably fast-growing.


A bushy or straggling shrub or a small rounded tree 1 to 7 m in height; occurring on sand dunes in coastal bush, but also on hillsides, in open grassland and in valleys.

Bark: greyish brown; the young branchlets conspicuously rough with raised lenticels.

Leaves: Linear-oblong, thinly leathery may be minutely pitted, sometimes slightly rough to the touch; apex tapering to rounded, ultimately with a finely pointed tip, base narrowly tapering; margin entire, tending to curve under, petiole 4 to 7mm long.

Flowers: small, white, in short broad many-flowered terminal heads

Fruits: ovoid, thinly fleshy, up to 10x8mm, yellowish-purple when mature.

In the 17th century the root was considered to be an antidote for snakebites, and was widely used for this purpose.

OLEA europea var. woodiana - FOREST OLIVE (Bosolienhout)

A small to medium sized tree up to 10m in height, occasionally reaching 20m; occurring in evergreen forest woodland an coastal bush.

Bark: pale grey smooth.

Leaves: elliptic, shiny green above, dull paler green below with minute scales resembling pits, with or without hairs, the midrib prominent and the lateral veins looping near the margin; apex narrowly tapering to rounded, sometimes notched; base tapering margin entire, rolled under and irregularly wavy; petiole up to 10mm long. Flowers: white, about 5mm long, in loose axillary or terminal heads 2 to 4cm long (November)

Fruit: ovoid, thinly fleshy, about 10x5mm, greenish-yellow when mature (March to April)

The wood is pale to dark brown, very hard and heavy, and has been described as 'steel-like'.


OLEA EUROPEA var africana

  1. var. africana - the most widely used species, due to availability virtually throughout the country. Young shoots, green to slightly red-brown; internodes 5-15mm elongating as growth progresses, fairly delicate in appearance. Leaf shape, with pruning variable - round - elliptical to narrow/lancear. On average 15 by 10mm, but may be smaller, with intensive training.
  2. var. capensis - available on the entire coastal strip and in Transvaal. Young shoots purplish to green, internodes short, growth stiff and straight. Leaves when new, green to purplish tinged, extremely small and almost heart-shaped.
  3. var. exasperata - available only on the Cape-coastal strip. Young shoots sandy-green, slightly rough to the touch, as are the leaves. Leaves oblong, sparse compared to the other species, branches more elastic.


Seed - fresh mature seeds will germinate well, especially if first eaten by either birds or animals as this softens the hard outer shell of the seed casing. Seeds may also be placed in sour milk for two to three days for easier germination.

Plant in winter (May to September) in seed trays. Cover with 5mm of sand. Cuttings - Hardwood and semi-hardwood cuttings seem to take best, from late Spring to Autumn. Medium to course sand or gravel (if medium is too fine, cuttings will rot). Rooting compound may be advantageous but not always essential.

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Random Bonsai Tip

If surface roots are unequally spread around the trunk or if they are lacking completely you can drill holes and insert match sticks or make deep scars around the base of the trunk on the side where the roots are needed below soil level. Apply hormone powder and sphagnum moss; cover with plastic and keep moist. Leave for 6 months to 1 year for the roots to develop.