Closely associated with Athens and the ancient world, the olive tree is known to all for its patriarchal, battered appearance and the fruit and oil it has dependably yielded for ages. Even young trees acquire a gnarled look, as can be seen on the row that grows on Campus Drive East, south of Escondido Road. Abundant crops of olives are produced that may be freely collected and served to one’s friends. It just takes a little patience to process them: they have to be soaked and washed dozens of times to leach out the bitterness, or they can be salted. By crushing the ripe fruit one ought to be able to obtain small quantities of oil; I have never been able to. All through the spring the olive tree furnishes food for the jays, robins, squirrels, and rats. The birds bang the black fruit on the sidewalk to separate the pit, and the squirrels eat an olive the way we eat corn, rotating it with both hands.
The word “oil” is from Latin oleum, olive oil. Olive sprigs form a pervasive background in Etruscan tomb art. According to Pliny, the tree was sacred to Minerva/Athena, and rightly so. Athena had driven her spear into the Acropolis and an olive tree sprang forth, in reward for which the attendant gods named Athens for her. A wreath of olive leaves then became the victor’s trophy at the Olympic games. Cultivation goes back to neolithic times, when it must have been noticed in times of hunger that fallen fruit lying in puddles tasted a little less revolting. Olive seeds were brought to California by Father Junipero Serra.
A large ancient specimen is at the entrance to Lagunita Court and a group of even more venerable olives survives behind the Mausoleum, under the eyes of the Syrian sphinxes. When Mrs. Stanford saw these stone apparitions arrive from Europe, she modestly ordered their replacement by more respectable ones. (The rather attractive bare-breasted sphinxes were not banished, just reoriented.)
Campus Drive East, when it was created, was planted with large numbers of olives. Sizable trees transplant readily as witnessed by the 1999 grove at the Science and Engineering Quad. A gnarled specimen between the Hoover Tower and the Bing Wing of the Green Library is a survivor of three that were planted by Mrs. Timothy Hopkins about 1891.
About this Entry: The main text of this entry is from the book Trees of Stanford and Environs, by Ronald Bracewell, published 2005.