I saw my first Olive Tree recently, and it wasn't in Greece, or Italy, or Israel, or California ... or anywhere else you would expect to see olive trees. It is growing in a lovely little garden right here in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
And what a glorious tree it is! It stands over 20 feet tall, and its silvery-green branches are loaded with olives.
There was a recent article about the tree in the Vicksburg Post, and I found the story fascinating — so fascinating, in fact, that I called the owner of the tree, Mrs. Mary Qasim (rhymes with possum), and asked if I could come see the tree and feature it on my blog. Mary graciously allowed me to photograph their tree, and it was truly a pleasure meeting her. She even gave me a tour of her beautiful garden, pointing out some of the more unusual plants along the way.
But before I share the tour and pictures of the garden, I'd like to share the story about how the olive tree came to be a part of Mary's and her husband Mohammad's garden.
According to Mary and the article in the Post (which was written by Vicksburg Master Gardener Miriam Jabour), Mohammad grew up Palestinian in Jerusalem, and has fond memories of, and often speaks of, the olive groves and other fruit trees, and how the various fruits were processed. His family made their own olive oil and shared it with others who needed it.
When the Qasims moved to North Carolina, they tried to grow an olive tree, but the winters there were too cold for the subtropical evergreen to live, and it died the first year.
But Mary and Mohammad didn't give up. Nine years ago, they planted another olive tree ... this time inside a walled garden on the side of their home in Vicksburg. Surrounded on three sides by high walls, the Qasim garden is protected from the effects of winter winds that often damage cold-sensitive plants, which is probably why they have had such success with their tree.
“We were told you couldn’t grow them here, but we chose the toughest cultivar,” Mary explained. Their tree is a Frantoio, one of the primary varieties the Italians use in the production of Tuscan olive oil. It is self-fertile, meaning it does not need another variety to set fruit.
Mary told me that when they planted the tree, a dove flew down into the garden and watched as they planted it. I'm not sure if that was a good omen or just a fluke, but the little olive tree lived and flourished, and now stands over 20 feet tall, its branches heavy with ripe olives ready for harvest.
Mary said, "We consider our tree a gift and we love that tree."
After hearing its story and seeing it for myself, I can certainly understand why. The tree was the focal point of the garden, and I couldn't wait to capture with my camera its silvery leaves, and graceful branches loaded with purple and green olives.
I was surprised to learn that the fruit is green until it ripens, and then it turns a dark purplish-brown before dropping from the tree.
Mary said the olives cannot be eaten fresh because they contain a very bitter substance called glucoside. They must be cured or pressed into olive oil before they can be consumed. The Qasims will be harvesting olives for several weeks, then curing them in a brining liquid for their own table use.
As we walked through the garden, I quickly discovered that the olive tree wasn't the only unusual plant growing within those walls. The Qasims also grow a variety of fruits, including two kinds of apples, pomegranates, figs, blueberries, loquats, muscadines, and lemons.
Their Meyer's Lemon Tree was loaded with fat green lemons, which Mary said will be ripe in a couple of weeks.
Banana Trees ...
A Bay Tree (Laurel Bay, Lauris nobilis), whose leaves the Qasims use for cooking ...
And Lebanese Mint ...
Besides the Olive Tree, one of the most interesting plants (to me) in the Qasims' garden was this Milkweed plant.
I had never seen a Milkweed plant, and was immediately drawn to the brightly colored flower.
Then Mary asked me if I had ever seen a Monarch butterfly's egg (which I hadn't), and I was totally captivated by what she showed me next.
She searched the undersides of the leaves and it didn't take her long to find what she was looking for a Monarch Butterfly Egg! Mary held the leaf up so I could get a closeup shot of the tiny egg ...
Mary went on to tell me that Milkweed contains a substance which is toxic to birds and other predators, and acts as a "host plant" for the Monarch butterfly. As the monarch larva consumes the milkweed leaves, it also retains the toxic substance (cardiac glycosides), making the Monarch toxic to predators, too. Is that not amazing! Nature never ceases to awe and humble me.
As we continued our walk down the winding path that led through the garden, I noticed that the raised beds not only held all kinds of interesting trees and plants, but little garden "creatures" as well. Every gardener knows that no garden is complete without a gnome, and this little guy looked quite comfortable perched on the ledge near the tomato patch ...
This is "Nerdy Bird," who was made by a local policeman in his spare time.
A local landscaper built the arbor for the muscadine vine, and also designed the unique arbor for the patio area ...
I love the shell "chandelier" and wind chimes ...
Mary said this is "Edgar the cat," and I was relieved to know that I'm not the only one who names their "yard critters."
Here are a couple more pictures I captured as we headed back to the front of the garden ...
Although I set out to see and photograph Mary's olive tree, I was blessed even more by the pleasure of meeting Mary, and seeing her and Mohammad's beautiful little garden through her eyes. Everywhere I looked, I could see the love that went into planting each and every tree and flower ... and, especially, the Olive Tree.
Throughout history, the Olive Tree has been a symbol of Peace ... and I will always remember the peacefulness of that little garden just a few blocks away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Vicksburg. Thank you for sharing it with me, Mary.