This site works better with JavaScript enabled!

[ Plant part | Family | Aroma | Chemistry | Origin | Etymology | Discussion | Bottom ]

Olive (Olea europaea L.)


pharmaceuticalOleum Olivarum
Amharicኦሊቨ, ዘይት, ወይራ
Oliva, Zayt, Wayra
Zaytun, Zaytoon
Aramaicܙܝܬ, ܙܝܬܘܢ
Zait, Zaitun
ArmenianՁիթենի, Ձիթապտուղ, Զեյթուն
Jiteni, Jitabdoogh, Zeytoon, Jitaptugh, Zeytun
BasqueOliba, Oliondo
CatalanOastre, Rabell, Ullastre, Olivera
橄欖樹 [gaam láam syuh]
Gaam laam syuh
橄欖樹 [gǎn lǎn shù]
Gan lan shu
Copticϫⲉⲉⲓⲧ, ϫⲱⲓⲧ
Jeit, Joit
CzechOliva, Olivovník evropský
EstonianÕlipuus, Euroopa õlipuu, Oliiv
GaelicOla, Sgolag
Georgianზეთის, ზეთისხილი
Zetis; Zetiskhili, Zetisxili (fruit)
GermanOlive, Ölbaum
Greek (Old)Ἐλαία, Ἐλαίς
Elaia, Elais
Hindiज़ैतून, जैतून, जलपाई
Zaitun, Jaitun, Jalapai
HungarianOlíva, Olajfa, Olajbogyó (tree)
Aliv, Julipe
KazakhЗәйтүн ағашы, Зәйтун
Zäytwn; Zäytün ağaşı (tree)
Mak olib
LatinOlea, Oliva
LithuanianAlyvos, Europinis alyvmedis
MacedonianМаслинка, Маслиново дрво, Маслинов зејтин
Maslinka; Maslinovo drvo (tree); Maslinov zejtin (oil)
Malayalamഒലീവ്, ഓലി
Oleevu, Oli
PortugueseOliveira (tree), Azeitona (fruit)
RomanianMăslină, Măslin (tree)
SlovakOliva európska, Olivovník európsky, Oliva
SpanishOliva, Aceituna
Ma kok (more often used for Spondias mombin)
VietnameseÔ liu, Cây ôliu
O liu, Cay o liu
Yiddishמאַסלינע, אָליװע, אײלבערט, אײלבירט
Masline, Olive, Eylbert, Eylbirt
Olea europaea: Ripe olives
Branch with ripe olives

Olea europaea: Unripe olives
Branch with unripe olives
Used plant part

The fruit (a drupe), which is pale green when unripe and purple to black when ripe. Most olive fruits are harvested for the extraction of olive oil; only a small fraction goes into the production of pickled olives.

The leaves of the olive tree are used medicinally for their hypotensive qualities.

Plant family

Oleaceae (olive family).

Sensory quality

Raw unripe olives are very bitter; to make them palatable, the bitter constituents are reduced by treatment with lye. Ripe olives, on the other hand, can be directly preserved in salt or brine.

Olea europaea: Olives
Olives in various stages of ripening

Olive oil has a very vari­able flavour. The best oils can have mild or strong flavour that ranges some­where between floral, fruity or fresh. Poor qualities have pungent, acidic, rancid or even no aroma.

Main constituents

In leaves and fruits of the olive tree, a phenolic seco-iridoid called oleuropein is found; it is the hypotensive principle. Before pickling olives, the oleuropein is removed either by treatment with lye or by lactic fermentation; the remaining residues of oleuropein are sometimes said to prevent diseases resulting from high blood pressure.

Olive oil is ob­tained from the meso­carp (pulp) of special varieties of olives with rather small fruits; the meso­carp contains about 55% of oil.

In the past, olive oil was extracted in hydraulic presses, like most other vegetable oils (see sesame); from that time stems the term cold-pressed for the first fractions with best flavour, which were extracted at low temperature and less than 50 bar pressure (Italian olio extra vergine di oliva, Greek partheno elaiolado [παρθένο ελαιόλαδο]).

Olea europaea: Olive branch
Olive branch with unripe fruits
Olea europaea: Oiltree branch
Olive branch with unripe fruit

Today, how­ever, olive oil is almost ex­clusively obtained by centri­fugation, which allows much better yield without applying elevated tem­perature. Con­sequently, almost all olive oil in the food sector is cold-pressed olive oil. The very best quality (dripping oil) is produced without centrifugation, by sedimentation only; it is rare and expensive. The best quality produced in mass scale is called native olive oil extra in the countries of the European Union; native extra loosely corresponds to the more historic term extra vergine. Both native olive oil extra and the next quality class, native olive oil, must be produced without applying heat, and must not be refined. Products called simply olive oil, however, have usually been refined and often contain small amounts of native oils to improve the flavour.

Olive oil is composed, like all vegetable oils (see also sesame), of fatty acids bound to the alcohol glycerol. Typically, the following fatty acids are found in olive oil: 66% oleic acid, 12% linoleic acid, 9% palmitic acid, 5% eicosenoic acid and 5% palmitoleic acid. Olive oil may contain up to 1.5% of an acyclic triterpene hydrocarbon, squalene.

Olea europaea: Ripe olive
Ripe olive
Olea europaea: Flowering olive branch
Flowering olive branch

The most im­portant parameter for the quality of olive oils is the content of free fatty acids, which must be below 0.8% for native olive oil extra, but may be up to 2% for native olive oil. Free fatty acids are formed in the ground olive paste by action of enzymes (lipases) contained in the olive fruits. The only way to control their formation is cooling and quick extraction. Free fatty acids are unwanted because they lower the smoke point and contribute off-flavour.

The desired flavour of olive oil is dominated by aldehydes (hexanal and 2-hexenal). Furthermore, higher aldehydes, primary alcohols (mainly C6 compounds like hexanol, 2-hexene-1-ol, 3-hexene-1-ol) and their acetic acid esters contribute to the characteristic olive oil aroma. Lastly, hemiterpenoid volatiles were found (3-methyl butanal, 4-methoxy-2-methyl-butanethiol, ethyl esters of 2- and 3-methyl butyric acid). The flavour components, however, depend on variety and geographic origin of the oil.

The typical olive oil colour is due to plant pigments of the carotenoid series (β-carotene, phytofluene, ξ-carotene, lutein, auroxanthin, luteoxanthin, violaxanthin, neoxanthin, neochrome), which contribute a yellow hue, and greenish to brown porphyrines (chlorophyll a and b, and pheophytine a and b). Chlorophyll content may be as high as 10 ppm.


Cultivation of the olive tree is known in the Eastern Medi­terranean since five millennia. Whether the plant really stems from these regions or is a native to Central Asia is subject to debate.

Olea europaea: Olivenblüten
Olea europaea: Olive flowers
Olive flowers

Olive is a loan from Latin oliva olive; olive tree, which itself was derived from Greek: elais [ἐλαίς] olive tree and elaia [ἐλαία] (from older elaiva [ἐλαίϝα], Mycenaean elaiwa [𐀁𐀨𐀷, 𐀁𐁉𐀷, 𐂐]) olive; olive tree; furthermore elaion [ἔλαιον] (Mycenaean elaiwon [𐀁𐀨𐀺, 𐀁𐁉𐀺, 𐂕]) olive oil. These words are not Indo–European in origin; it is generally accepted that they were transferred to Greek by some Eastern Mediterranean language, often assumed to be Semitic. Yet as we don’t know the botanical origin of the olive tree, the name could, together with the tree, have travelled from more distant Eastern regions. There is a curious connection to the Dravidian languages which are today spoken in Southern India: Sesame, an important local source of vegetable oil, bears names that are remarkably similar to Greek elaia, e. g., Tamil ellu (pronounced yellu [எள்ளு]). Sometimes, both words are suspected to derive from a common ancestor, e. g., Akkadian ellu flower, fruit, olive.

Most of the con­tempo­rary Euro­pean lan­guages have a word for olive that derives, directly or in­directly, from Latin oliva. Ex­am­ples are German Olive, Polish oliwka, Slovenian oljka, Frisian oliif, Latvian olīvas and Dutch olijf. In some languages, the name got slightly modified, e. g., Lithuanian alyvos and Albanian ullir.

The medieval German terms for olive were Old High German oliberi ( century) and Middle High German ölber oil-berry, which were obviously formed under the influence of Latin oliva (Old High German oli oil is an old Romance loanword from Latin oleum and attested since the century). Modern German Olive is a much younger loan ( century). The Middle High German term has vanished from the language, but was conserved in Yiddish as eylbirt [אײלבירט], which, however, is today also used to denote other oilseed plans, e. g., sunflower.

Only in the languages of the Iberic peninsula, the Latin name was superseded by an Arabic loan: Spanish aceituna and Portuguese azeitona both come from Arabic az-zaytun [الزيتون] the olive; on the other hand, Spanish oliva and Portuguese oliveira refer to the tree, not to the fruit. See also capers for more examples of Arabic loans in Iberic languages.

Olea europaea: Olive branch nfrutescence, immature
Olive branch with unripe fruits
Olea europaea: Embryonic olives
Very young olives, shortly after pollination

The Arabic word zaytun [زيتون] is cognate to Hebrew zayith [זית], Aramaic zayta [ܙܝܬܐ] and perhaps also Coptic jeeit [ϫⲉⲉⲓⲧ] olive and might derive from a Common Semitic root signifying to be prominent; on the other side, it might also have been borrowed from a language of Mesopotamia (Sumerian zirdum [𒍢𒅕𒌈], Akkadian serdu). Due to the spread of Islâm, the word was subsequently transferred to many more languages, from the Mediterranean (Portuguese azeitona) to Africa (Swahili zeituni) and Asia, which features related names in a wide area from the Caucasus to the South Asian tropics: Georgian zetis [ზეთის], Armenian jiteni [ձիթենի], Kazakh zäytun [зәйтун], Kurdish zaitun [زةیتوون], Farsi zeitun [زیتون], Punjabi and Hindi jaitun [ਜੈਤੂਨ, ज़ैतून], Tamil saidun [சைதூண்], Dhivehi zaithooni [ޒައިތޫނި] and even Mongolian chidun [чидун]. Another, more distantly related word is Maltese żebbuġ which is suspected to derive from a term for olive in the Berber language, which also belongs to the Semitic language subfamily.

Due to the enormous importance of olives for both the Greek and the Roman cultures, their name entered nearly every European language via Latin oleum oil as generic word for liquid fats, e. g., English oil, French huile, German Öl, Italian olio, Dutch olie, Polish olej and Finnish öljy.

Similarly, the Iberic names for oil (Spanish aceite, Por­tuguese azeite besides óleo) derive from the local names of olive, aceituna and azeitona, respec­tively.

In other parts of the world, the generic names of cooking fats may also be derived from whatever oilseed dominates local cookery. Examples are provided by coconut and sesame.

Some Slavonic names of olive, e. g., Bulgarian maslina [маслина] olive, have an exactly opposite history: Maslina derives from maslo [масло] oil, fat, which originally meant butter (from a Common Slavonic root MAZ- spread). Words related to Bulgarian maslina made their way into some non-Slavonic languages, e. g., Romanian măslin and Yiddish masline [מאַסלינע].

The term maslo [масло], however, is not used for olive oil in Bulgarian, which is instead known as zehtin [зехтин] (from Turkish zeytin olive). Vegetable oils are often called olio [олио] in Bulgarian.

Occasionally, fruits of botanically unrelated trees may be called olives, often with an epithet referring to distribution. For example, the Bengali olives (or Indian olives) are the aromatic fruits of Elaeocarpus robustus; in West Bengal and Bangladesh, they are often used to prepare a chutney with delicious fruity and acidic taste. A similar case is the Thai olive ma kok [มะกอก] (Spondias mombin, Sp. pinnata, Sp. cytherea and others), which allegedly gave its name to Thailand’s capital, Bangkok. Such designations may sometimes be used to denote true Mediterranean olives in the local language, with or without an epithet foreign.

Selected Links

Transport Information Service: Olive Oil Pacific Islands Ecosystems at Risk: Olive Olive Trees in Crete Olive Fruit Facts Olive Presses and Mills Tuscany and Italy – Olives and Olive Oil Olive Expert: Through the Mists of Time Composition of Olive Oil Informationsgemeinschaft Olivenöl ( Bilderserie zur Herstellung von extra vergine Olivenöl (Koni Berg) Recipe: Tapenade ( Recipe: Tapenade ( Recipe: Tapenade ( Recipe: İmam bayıldı (Imam bayildi) ( Recipe: İmam bayıldı (Imam bayildi) ( Recipe: İmam bayıldı (Imam bayildi) (

Olea europaea: Olive tree near St. Pierre Kilisesi (Antakya, Turkey)
Olive tree near St. Petrus Church in Antakya (ancient Antioch), Turkey
Olea europaea: Olive tree
Olive tree

Olive is one of the most important cultigens and played in excep­tionally significant rôle in the ancient civi­lizations around the Medi­terranean sea: Egyptians, Phoeni­cians, Greeks and Romans knew and valued olive oil. The olive tree is mentioned in the Homeric epics (see poppy) and olive branches were used, in oldest time, to decorate the winners of the Olympic Games; later, they were replaced by bay leaves. In the classic era of Greece, the olive was closely associated with the goddess Pallas Athene, a daughter of Zeus. Innumerous are the instances of olive in the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testament (see pomegranate). The old Romans used olive oil extensively (see also silphion).

Olives are grown in the whole Mediterranean region and are a most important part of the diet in all Mediterranean countries: Olive oil is ubiquitously used as a cooking medium, and pickled olives are popular both a spice and as a snack.

Olea europaea: Olive flowers
Olive flowers
Olea europaea: Olive branch with flowers
Olive branch with flowers

Pickled olives are either black or green, depending whether they have been harvested unripe or ripe. Green olives are plucked unripe and either repeatedly watered or treated with concentrated lye before pickling; by the latter procedure, which dates back to ancient Rome, bitterness is greatly reduced and the texture is improved. Black olives are plucked ripe; in Greece, they are treated with salt or undergo lactic fermentation, which results in an intense flavour. The brine olives are pickled in is often further enhanced by addition of some herbs (thyme, oregano) or garlic.

Pickled olives are a common decoration for cold dishes and tasty sauces. Of course, they fit best to specialties from the Mediterranean. Olive’s flavour can be enhanced by preparing a paste of finely cut and squeezed olives with good olive oil. Adding anchovies (fermented fish), garlic and capers to such a paste from black olives and olive oil gives tapenade, a Southern French condiment and appetizer which tastes best with crispy baguettes.

The use of olives for warm dishes is more or less restricted to Mediterranean cuisines. Tomato sauces containing onion, garlic, capers and green (or sometimes black) olives are characteristic of Italy; they may be made even tastier by adding fresh herbs (basil, oregano and rue). Sauces of this kind may be used to cook meat or poultry or they can simply be served together with noodles (pasta). Italian pizza is often prepared with (usually black) olives, mostly so in Southern Italy (see oregano).

Far more important than pickled olives is, however, olive oil, whose production consumes about 90% of olive acreage. The best quality, native olive oil extra (formerly known by the Italian term extra vergine), is quite variable in appearance and taste; after having tried some oils, most people develop different preferences. Some oils are subtle and flowery, others intense and fruity. It is probably a good idea to stock a few different varieties in the kitchen.

There is a huge variety in olive oils, both regarding colour and flavour. The multitude of olive oil qualities can, essen­tially, be reduced to two factors: Quality of the under­lying olives, and method of extraction.

Best extra vergine olive oil is produced from several different varieties of olives, the fruits being picked all at the same time, at different stages of ripeness. Furthermore, climate, altitude and soil influence the flavour of the oil. Last of all, olives must be extracted as soon as possible after plucking, and in the meantime, they require dry storage and careful handling to avoid the formation of marks on the fruits.

Olea europaea: Olive branch with unripe fruits
Olive branch with unripe fruits
Olea europaea: Olive flowers
Olive branch with flowers

When extract­ing olives, one encounters a problem rarely found with other oil crops: High water content. By grinding, one does not arrive at a dry mass suitable for high-pressure extraction, but one gets a liquid if viscous emulsion of oil in water. Under these conditions, lipases (fat-cleaving enzymes) can quickly degrade the oil. To counteract, one has to cool efficiently and to work as quickly as possible. For best quality, temperature must never exceed 25 °C, which is only possible with special grinding machines. After grinding (which is more a kind of puréeing), the oil is separated by sedimentation or centrifugation. The next fraction of oil, obtained from the watery residue of the first centrifugation, often at slightly elevated temperature, is less aromatic. Any oil produced in this way may be marketed as native olive oil or even native olive oil extra if the free acid level permits.

Native olive oil extra should be used for cold foods only, since the flavour detoriates on heating: Volatile constituents may evaporate or react toward unpleasantly flavoured compounds. Native olive oil, which is from the beginning poorer in aroma, is well suited for careful shallow-frying. Nevertheless, even native olive oils does not tolerate the high temperatures typical of deep-frying, for which therefore other oils are better choice (e. g., peanut or sunflower oil); when using olive oil, one has to fry at comparatively low temperatures that do not allow for efficient browning of meats or vegetables. To improve the smoke point, one can add butter or better butter fat, which also may be beneficial for the flavour.

Olea europaea: Unripe olives
Unripe olives

Many of the dishes of Southern Europe, Western Asia and Northern Africa owe much of their character to extra vergine olive oil. It is used for salads, for the Near East chick pea paste hummus (see sesame), cold appetizers (in Israel collectively known as mezes) and the salads of the Eastern Mediterranean based on bulgur, this is, cracked and precooked wheat (tabbouleh, kısır; see parsley). Furthermore, olive oil is used for spicy dips like Egypt dukka (see thyme) or the famous Provençal garlic mayonnaise aïoli. Italian noodles (pasta) are often boiled with a spoonful of olive oil to prevent them from sticking together; before serving, olive oil is often spooned over to increase the flavour.

By using olive oil instead of bland vegetable oil, everyday dishes like shallow-fried vegetables (zucchini, aubergines, capsicum) get a typically Mediterranean character, even more if they are served with yoghurt or tomato sauce. A famous example from Turkey is imam bayıldı (the İmam fainted, probably for pleasure), aubergine fried in olive oil stuffed with a spicy paste of tomatoes and garlic. Slow frying of vegetables in olive oil consumes a lot of the oil; sometimes, it is possible to deep-fry (or grill) the vegetables instead, pat them dry and sprinkle some with high-quality olive oil before serving.

The taste of olive oil harmonizes excellently with the fragrance of Mediterranean herbs. In the Mediterranean countries, olive oil is often flavoured with branches of rosemary, lavender, tarragon or, on Cyprus, with fresh capers. Most fresh herbs can be preserved in olive oil; their aroma compounds dissolve better in oil than in an aqueous medium. A most famous recipe of this kind is pesto, a paste of ground basil leaves in olive oil.

Not only the gentle fragrance of fresh herbs, but also the pungency of chiles has an affinity for a fatty medium. In Italy, small but powerful chiles (peperoncini) are often used to convert olive oil into a fiery condiment (olio santo or olio piccante). I have seen a comparable chile oil in Arizona. According to personal taste, it may be used drop by drop or tablespoon by tablespoon. In some variants of the Yemeni condiment zhoug (see coriander), the heat of green chiles is transmitted by olive oil.

Unicode Encoded Validate using the WDG validator Validate using the VALIDOME validator

Top   Plant part   Family   Aroma   Chemistry   Origin   Etymology   Discussion   Bottom