olive, common name for the Oleaceae, a family of trees and shrubs (including climbing forms) of warm temperate climates and of the Old World tropics, especially Asia and the East Indies. Many are popular ornamentals, particularly the lilac (Syringa), true jasmine (Jasminum), privet (Ligustrum), and forsythia genera; none of these has species native to the United States. Several indigenous species of ash (Fraxinus) are valuable for timber in North America. The true olive (Olea europaea) is the source of the fruit also called olive and of olive oil; it is the most commercially important member of the family. The olive tree, a small evergreen, has been cultivated since the beginning of historical times in its native Asia Minor. Its cultivation spread very early to all the Mediterranean countries, and this is still the chief area of production. It is now grown also in Australia, S Africa, Mexico, and California, where it was introduced (c.1769) at the San Diego mission by Spanish missionaries. The mission olive of today, one of the best varieties for both pickling and oil, was developed from the trees grown at the mission. The several hundred horticultural varieties of olives, many cultivated since ancient times, differ in appearance, flavor, and oil content. Some varieties have been developed especially for oil extraction, the chief use of the fruit. Of the eating olives, green olives are picked when full-grown but unripe, and are often pitted and stuffed with pimientos or anchovies. Ripe olives, usually purplish black, are richer in oil. Both green and ripe olives are treated with lye to remove the bitter quality and then packed in brine. Olive wood, hard and close-grained, is used for cabinetwork and furniture. According to Greek mythology the olive was Athena's gift to mankind, and Athens was named in her honor for this gift. The olive branch has been the symbol of peace since before Christian times, because the oil could be used both to heal human ills and to calm troubled waters. The first vegetation seen by Noah after the Deluge was the branch of olive brought back by the dove, and a dove bearing an olive branch has also been used in art as a symbol of peace. Olives are classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Scrophulariales, family Oleaceae.
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