The African Wild Olive

The African Wild Olive

Olive Tree The Arc Light

Botanical name: Olea europaea subspecies africana

Order / Family: Oleaceae

Also known as: Olea europeaea subsp. cuspidata.

English Names: African wild olive, Brown olive, African olive

Local Names: Kamba (Muthata); Kikuyu (Mutamaiyu); Bukusu (Kumutamaywa); Luo (Kang'o); Maasai (Oloirien); Meru (Muthata); Nandi (Emidit); Ogiek (Yemdit); Samburu (Tamiyai); Somali (Wera); Taita (Mkumbi); Turkana (Euriepei) Borana (Ejarse)


The Olive is one of the world’s oldest trees. The local species - Olea africana is a complex of several subspecies and varieties including the domesticated Olea europaea, which is grown in southern Europe and the Middle East, made famous for its production of olive oil. As the African Wild Olive grows, it becomes a bushy shrub or small tree with a spreading crown that forms a dense canopy bearing angular, scaly young stems and a bark that becomes rough as it matures. Once planted, the tree needs very little care because it is resistant to most diseases, it tolerates drought, hot temperatures, frost, wind, salt, damage, and it can grow in the shade. The tree can regenerate after a fire. This small-fruited and heavily branched woody shrub bears very little commercial value.


The African wild olive is very invasive, especially in drier woodlands, making it widespread across Kenya and other regions of the world. This tree is native to: Kenya, China, Eritrea, Ethiopia, France, India, Italy, Mozambique, South Africa, Spain, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe. It is commonly found near rocky hillsides, along dry riverbeds and forest margins and in dry forests. In Kenya, it is found in most inland highland areas from the coastal hills in the south to the west and northern regions.


Altitude range is between 800 m and 2 500 m above sea level. It does best in good forest soil, but once established, can withstand poor soils with little moisture. It is distributed in agro-ecological zones II - III. However, it is a drought-and-disease-resistant tree that can grow in zones with less rain, reaching heights of 18 meters and can live for up to 120 years, but matures in 30 years.


Food, Medicine and Fodder

The fruit is edible but bitter. The fleshy, oil-bearing mesocarp used in commercial olive growing is absent in this subspecies. Its branches, when partially ignited, are used to flavor soup and give it a pleasant aroma. Smoke and ashes from its wood is poured into gourds containing sour milk to act as a preservative. The smoke and ash keeps gourds fresh and prevents mold growth and bacteria growth. Its root and bark was traditionally used to make a decoction believed to cure malaria. Its leaf extracts were traditionally used for deworming and to suppress diarrhea. A tea made from dried leaves is believed to help improve kidney function and alleviate urinary tract problems. Because the African wild olive is evergreen and is drought resistant, it provides a steady supply of food to livestock, birds and wild animals which browse on its seeds and leaves. Its flowers are sweet-scented, thus attracting bees which collect pollen and nectar.

Furniture, Ink and Fuel

Wood from the African wild olive is hard and heavy. However, the tree does not produce saw-able logs or branches, though there are several carpenters that, with great effort produce furniture from the limited quantities of timber. The wood is fine-textured and finishes well, and is often used to make ornaments such as vases and kitchen utensils. Jewelry items such as beads, brooches and bangles are also made from the African wild olive wood. The rare long poles are dense, strong and resistant to termites, wood borers and rot, making them excellent for supporting the heavy earth roofs of traditional Maasai houses. Because bees are attracted to the sweet scent of its exposed wood, the African wild olive makes excellent sturdy and durable beehives that repel termites, wood borers and rot. The branches of the tree also make an excellent traditional toothbrush. Unlike its European cousin whose fruits produce oil, juice from ripe African wild olive is used to make ink. Rural communities use wild olive extensively as firewood and charcoal.


Environmental and Reclamation

The African wild olive is an evergreen plant that has the capacity to beautify landscapes. It is popular for bonsai, street planting, and for use in institutions or parks. The tree creates a dense canopy that provides shade for livestock and humans. Because of its disease-resistant nature, it is used as the stock onto which the cultivated olive, Olea europaea, is grafted. The African wild olive has been used to stabilize erosion and is useful for dryland restoration as it is drought resistant and flowers within 4-5 years, potentially giving fruits every year.

Ceremonial and Cultural

The African wild olive plays an integral part in the ceremonial and religious aspects of many Kenyan communities. It is at the center of the Maasai way of life, especially, who use it in their rites of passage for young warriors. A team of Maasai scouts is sent into an indigenous forest to find a young, healthy, growing African wild olive tree. Once identified, a delegation of 49 men without blemish (those with no criminal cases or broken limbs) is sent into the forest to inspect the identified olive. Once on site, they extricate the olive plant down to its roots using only their bare hands; this exercise can take them a whole day. After uprooting it, the tree must not touch the ground, so it is carried shoulder high back to the village. Upon the highly anticipated arrival of the olive tree, village elders light a traditional fire and place the olive tree in the fire. As the olive tree burns, the spirit of the tree is released. The fire and the burning olive tree symbolize the creation of a lifelong bond, that will unite members of the new age group. Warriors stand guard and spend the entire night protecting the fire against the elements and any spiritual forces that may harbor ill intentions against members of the new age group. The African wild olive is also used to make cultural artifacts such as masks, ceremonial stools, staffs for elders or clubs and walking sticks.

Because of the many uses of this tree, it has been over-harvested dramatically in Ethiopia especially in the Tigray region where it is harvested for firewood, resulting in the threat of local extinction.


Sadly, but with reason, the African wild olive is considered a creeping woody weed in Australia and New Zealand, and is actively eradicated and its growth suppressed because it is considered an ecosystem transformer since it is not native to the Australian bushland or the New Zealand bushland. Its dense canopy prevents the establishment of native plant seedlings.

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