The olive tree has been exceptionally generous to mankind. Indeed, its special gifts to humans have been documented for thousands of years and it is a dove carrying an olive branch that in our day and age stands for the global symbol of peace.

The olive tree belongs to a plant family that includes the ash, jasmine and lilac. The cultivated olive is harvested from a tree known scientifically as Olea europa, native to the eastern Mediterranean region. Today, these trees are widely grown throughout the Mediterranean area (98 percent of olive oil comes from there) and other regions with a similar climate.

According to Greek mythology, the olive tree was the creation of the goddess Athena, who first planted one out among the rocky grounds of the Acropolis and endowed it with powers to illuminate the darkness, soothe wounds, and provide nourishment.

Athena clearly did a bang-up job. The tree has carried out its role divinely. It has given us:

  • Olives for eating

  • A hard and variegated wood that is esteemed by cabinet makers. Tourists returning from the Holy Land usually carry souvenirs made of olive wood.

  • Olives for olive oil. During the Roman Empire, olive cultivation, curing and oil production advanced to a fine art --- an art that has survived largely intact for 2,000 years. So, too, have Roman recipes for the use of olives and olive oil in food. For cooking purposes, olive oil is recommended over other vegetable oils because it has been found to be less susceptible to heat-caused oxidation that changes the chemical structure of the oil into a potentially-harmful form.

  • Live oil for illumination. This was the lighting oil used in Mediterranean houses well into the 19th century.

  • Olive oil for lubrication. It oiled the machines of the industrial revolution just as it had served the Romans in earlier times as axle grease.

  • Olive oil for healing. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, prescribed olive oil for curing ulcers, cholera and muscular pains some 2,500 years ago. Over the ages, numerous folk medicine applications for olive oil have been described. In more recent times, the health benefits of olive oil have attracted considerable attention. Studies indicate that the consumption of olive oil by Mediterranean peoples is an major reason why they have less heart disease than Americans. There is also some scientific evidence that olive oil intake may reduce the risk of breast cancer for women. Studies have also shown that olive oil is beneficial for blood pressure and blood glucose levels.

  • The olive leaf for healing. Throughout history, the utilization of the fruit and its oil have overshadowed the rest of the tree. But recent medical research indicates that the olive leaf, celebrated in the bible and then relatively forgotten, may be a rising healing star.
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