The summer after graduation from high school, I took Horace Greeley’s advice (go West young man) and drove an old, beat-up jalopy from south Louisiana to Azusa, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, where I rented a tiny garage apartment from an elderly Lebanese lady. The trip was quite an adventure. The old car broke down several times, once in West Texas and again in Arizona. Both times I was helped by total strangers, angels, really. I’m reminded during these present crazy times the country is going through that there are a great many kind and loving people in this great land.

My Lebanese landlady was a delightful character, tiny in stature, huge in personality. She also was a devoted gardener and a great cook. She practically sustained me that first lonely month in Los Angeles by sharing lots of Lebanese dishes, including roasted lamb, which I had never eaten.

She also introduced me to lots of unfamiliar Southern California plants, olives for instance. I was familiar with preserved (bottled) olives, of course. But I had never actually seen a living olive tree. My new landlord had several large and beautiful specimens growing in her garden.

Olive trees, she pointed out, live long lives, often well more than 500 years. There are olive trees growing in Israel, she assured me, that date back to the time of Christ. Her shoulders squared with pride when she reminisced about her native Lebanon and the role played by olives in Mediterranean culture for thousands of years.

She taught me that olives were of little use when freshly harvested. They’re terribly bitter, much like green persimmons. They need lots of time and the loving attention of a talented olive master to transform them into something useful and edible.

Olive fruit and oils have rightly gained popularity in western countries in recent decades. We’ve increasingly been made aware of the health benefits of this ancient fruit and its pure golden oil. With high levels of beneficial fatty acids and powerful antioxidants, olive oils are at the forefront of the grain-and-veggie revolution sweeping America.

As chief cook and bottle washer in my family, I keep the pantry filled with olive oils, some pricey, some not. I’m embarrassed to confess how much I recently paid for a bottle of cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil from the hill country near Tuscany, Italy. It’s worth every penny, however, when drizzled over salads, pastas and breads.

Unfortunately, the Tulsa area is not well-suited for growing olives. Our winters get a little too cold for this Middle Eastern native. A temperature below 15 degrees will severely damage olive trees. Fortunately, Tulsa is blessed with lots of businesses that sell premium olives and olive oil.


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Barry Fugatt is director of horticulture at the Tulsa Garden Center and the Linnaeus Teaching Garden in Woodward Park. He can be reached at 918-576-5152, email: bfugatt@tulsagardencenter.org