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Sturdy, ancient grace

Olive trees can withstand the harshness that a dry urban environment imposes, rising above it all to reward watchful city dwellers with a stately beauty.

June 05, 2003|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

The olive tree occupies such a heroic place in history that it feels trivial, even sacrilegious, to describe it as an ornamental plant. But the slender gray-green leaves could scarcely be lovelier. No plant harvests sunlight so elegantly as the olive tree or has quite its magic with moonlight.

To the beauty, add stamina and flexibility. After 6,000 years in domestication (give or take a millennium), the olive tree is the most versatile plant available to L.A. landscapers. It makes a glorious stand-alone tree, but it can also be grown in a container, trained as a shrub, espaliered and run as a hedge.

In almost every instance it brings a lush solution to the city's looming water crisis. You don't need to rely on cactuses and spiny succulents. Tour what amounts to the public showrooms of L.A.'s landscapers, the residential avenues of Pasadena, Hancock Park and Beverly Hills, and an alternative water-saving trend is plain: the replacement of front lawns with small olive groves.

Producing fruit is the least of their jobs. In fact, in this setting, fruit is usually a nuisance, even a health hazard. The purpose of these trees is to absorb traffic noise, cool the air, rustle pleasantly in the wind and obscure the neighbor's big ugly car. Relatively new breeds created in nurseries by grafting cuttings onto dwarf rootstock will do all this without blocking the upstairs windows.

The first challenge for homeowners who switch from lawns is weaning themselves from the hose. The trees need to be showered from time to time to clean off grit, but no matter how hot it gets, established olives should rarely, if ever, be watered. The plants come from the Mideast, where they evolved as the horticultural equivalent of camels.

They become borderline dormant in the summer, growth slowed to a near standstill to conserve water. They grow in the winter when it rains.

When olives grow, watch out. After each rainfall, they put out foliage so fast that new leaves are visible in days, sometimes within 24 hours. You can practically hear a grateful burp. These spurts are the olive's quirkiest trait. Who would have imagined the stateliest tree of the ancients to be an excellent source of willowy green fill?

The only exception to the watering rule is for olive trees in containers. These will need frequent watering. But when the trees are in the ground, we should do as the Middle Easterners do: Progress from low to no water. Several hours with the hose on a trickle once a month should do it for young trees. Except in drought years, established trees should not be watered.

The most classical way to landscape with olive trees is to set them in a bed of good ground cover, say gravel, decomposed granite or pavers. But at the Beverly Hills home of Sue Smalley and Kevin Wall, a street-front grove of fruitless olives has been strategically thinned to feed light under the trees. Below them runs a shimmering collection of reflective plants: white iceberg roses, silver-leafed lavender and rosemary. Banks of star jasmine tumble over the front retaining wall.

Pamela Burton, the landscaper who recently refurbished the garden, says the icebergs are "so uncomplaining" that there is no need to swamp the olives to keep the roses happy.

It is jaw-droppingly lovely. However, beware before you copy fancy under-planting schemes. A small grove of fruitless olives put in as a children's garden at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral is under-planted with grass. The water needs could scarcely be less compatible. Lawn is quintessentially British. Olives come from Iran.

Provided we don't drown them, olives should flourish in L.A. Bugs will nibble at leaves, but they won't get far. The only pest of note is the Mediterranean olive fly. The first invaders were spotted in the 1990s on the grounds of the Mormon Temple in Westwood. For the last several years, commercial growers from Ojai to Sonoma began spraying.

The danger for farmers is that cities will become a refuge for the pest. Home gardeners seldom notice them because they don't harm the trees. Rather, they bore into the fruit, which forms in May and is usually ripe by November. UC Davis Extension specialist Louise Ferguson asks that home gardeners cut a ripe olive in the autumn to see if it contains a larva or worm; if it does, the fruit will appear rotten and tunneled.

If homeowners have fruiting trees, the best thing they can then do is either harvest the olives and cure them in brine or knock them off the trees when they ripen in November and throw them away. Do not let the olives fall; rotting fruit provides first-class accommodation for flies.

For most Angelenos, the fruit is a liability for other reasons. It gets squashed under tires and feet and stains driveways and carpets. An arcane worry that crops up every so often in city hall meetings is that people will slip on them.

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