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Apr 1, 2004


This practical manual is an authoritative guide to olive propagation, providing extended information on seed germination, rooting of cuttings, grafting and micropropagation. The authors describe each topic in detail and discuss the relative advantages and disadvantages of each procedure.

The Olive Propagation Manual has been developed to take into account the future demand for olive oil, which is expected to increase to three million tonnes annually over the next 10 years. Such volumes will require active farming programs and olive trees for new orchards and the replacement of olive trees in existing orchards. As the olive industry moves from traditional manual methods to mechanised operations, planting stock will need to be developed to meet future challenges. Varietal selection will need to be directed to clones that are early bearing, disease resistant, able to be mechanically harvested, and produce quality fruit and oil. Each of these issues are addressed throughout this book.

The Olive Propagation Manual explores historical perspectives, traditional methods and state-of-the-art olive propagation including theoretical explanations and all practical aspects.

Apr 1, 2004

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Olive Propagation Manual - Andrea A. Fabbri




The European olive (Olea europaea L.) is a major source of edible oil and processed edible olives. Today, the olive is cultivated over a total world surface area of almost 10 million hectares, on 60% of which it represents the main crop. The traditional area of olive cultivation is the Mediterranean basin, which includes 95% of the olive orchards of the world, and where more than the 95% of the olive oil and the 75% of the table olives are produced. A rough estimate of the global number of olive trees is over 800 million. The annual yield of olives is estimated at 10 million tonnes, most of which is used for oil production and less than 10% consumed as table olives.

Over the last 30 years, the production and the consumption of olive oil have increased together. It is unlikely that this trend will change in the near future, considering the recent introduction or increase of olive cultivation and olive-oil consumption in countries such as Japan, Australia, China and South Africa. Remarkable increases (up to 10 fold) have been observed in several countries, including Australia, where olive-oil consumption has passed the level of 1 kg/person/year. Hence, the volume of olive oil consumed worldwide during the next 10 years is expected to exceed three million tonnes annually.

Such volumes of olive oil will require active farming programs and olive trees for both new olive orchards and replacement in existing olive groves. Furthermore, as the olive industry moves from traditional manual methods to mechanised operations, planting stock will need to be developed to meet future challenges. Varietal selection will need to be directed to clones that are early bearing, disease resistant and able to be mechanically harvested, and which will produce quality fruit and oil. Although these developments are the province of plant breeders, the follow-through will fall to the olive propagators and associated nurseries.

1.1 Fundamentals of plant propagation

Plant propagation consists of the application of specific biological principles and of particular techniques for the multiplication of plants. The plants obtained in the process should be identical, or as similar as possible, to the plants from which they are derived.

All living organisms can be described by genotype and phenotype. Genotype is the whole set of genetic characteristics of the organism, which are controlled by a very high number of genes Any living cell of the organism has the availability of the whole set of genes, although only a minor part of these is activated in that given cell, according to its specialisation (i.e. the differentiation process it went through). Phenotype is the sum total of visible or measurable characters of the organism that characterise it as individual (such as, in fruit trees, fruit size, shape and quality, tolerances to stress and disease, phenological stages). A fundamental principle of biology is that the phenotype is the result of an interaction, between genotype and environment. As a result, if we want to obtain plants that are as similar as possible to their parent plants, we must produce individuals with the same genotype, and place them in identical environments. This latter condition is almost impossible to achieve, and at any rate is not a concern for propagators. Propagators should instead be aware of the implications of the genetic characteristics of propagules (any plant parts used for propagation), which are fundamental in defining the qualitative results of the propagation process. In this respect we can divide the propagation systems for horticultural plants in two main groups: reproduction and multiplication.

In reproduction, or gamic or sexual propagation, the propagule is the seed (in higher plants), and particularly the embryo, derived from a fertilisation process. The seed carries the genes of two parents, and these can be arranged in a countless number of combinations. Even when it derives from self-pollination, the genotype of a seed is never identical to that of any of the parent plants, as there are several mechanisms that may cause variation in gene presence and position. Therefore the progeny are always to some extent different from any of the parents, and variability also occurs within the seedling population, just as happens with humans. This means that sexual propagation cannot be used for those species in which uniformity of the plantation and true-to-typeness for a series of biological and technical requirements are essential, as is the case of fruit trees. In species like the olive, seed propagation is therefore confined to the production of seedlings, to be used as rootstocks. In multiplication, or agamic or asexual propagation, the propagule is any other part of the tree, and therefore only carries identical somatic cells. This includes shoots, roots, buds and leaves, and even cells from the ovary tissues, which belong to the stock plant genotype. These tissues, being genetically identical to the stock plant, are able to generate individuals with the same genotype, which in turn will be able to be propagated indefinitely in the same way, thus generating a ‘clone’. Olive cultivars are clones, often very ancient clones, derived from countless asexual propagations, made with several techniques since ancient times. The success of propagation, whatever the technique adopted, depends on knowledge of the many aspects controlling the formation of a new individual:

genetic characteristics of species and cultivar which regulate their ability to be propagated

anatomical structure and physiology of the whole plant and of the organs to be propagated

methods most suited to propagate the various cultivars and rootstocks

techniques and structures, and their optimisation to obtain the best technical and economical results

1.2 The importance of propagation for olive cultivation

The olive tree, Olea europaea (L.), is one of the most ancient cultivated fruit trees of the Old World, and its importance for the Mediterranean civilisations is witnessed by all classical sources. A remnant of the tropical flora of the mid-Tertiary, the olive is so typical of the Mediterranean that its presence qualifies a climate as Mediterranean, even in other areas of the world. The earliest signs of olive cultivation – the first wave – can be traced back to the 4th millennium BC and, before that, to areas of the eastern Mediterranean coasts and islands, although the ancestors of currently grown olive cultivars are still believed to have been domesticated in the mountainous territory south of the Caucasus, covering today’s eastern Turkey, western Iran, Lebanon, northern Israel, Syria and northern Iraq.

From the eastern Mediterranean the olive moved westwards – the second wave – to Greece and the Aegean archipelago, although Crete and Cyprus probably belonged to the oldest olive-growing centre. In these areas, collectively considered a secondary centre of diversity, the olive grew in importance, and possibly underwent deliberate selection by humans between the 3rd and the 2nd millennia BC. In Crete, in the 16th century BC, there existed in Knossos a huge deposit of clay jars, able to store five times the amount of oil the local population could consume in one year, thus indicating a strong possibility of a developed trade in olive oil. Around the beginning of the first millennium BC a third migration appears to have taken place. Again it was westwards, to Sicily and Tunisia, an area regarded as the olive tertiary centre of diversity. From there, around 600 BC, probably through Etruria (today’s Tuscany), the crop is reported by the classical historians to have reached the Romans. Up to this point the olive had moved slowly westwards, first on the ships of Phoenician merchants, and later on those of Greek colonists; these peoples had spread the crop in many other places along the Mediterranean, including Spain, France and northern Africa, with varied results. But the conquest of the whole area by the Roman legions, and its transformation into a vast united empire, made trade and communications far more intense, and the olive benefited from this situation. In addition, when Italy appeared unable to provide the required supply of olive oil, the Romans spread its cultivation in new areas, or favoured it in places where olive groves had already been established but had stagnated. The crop achieved its maximum economic importance in the 2nd to 3rd centuries AD, particularly in northern Africa, but also in Spain, Dalmatia, and French Provence.

Figure 1.1 Distribution of the wild olive (Olea europaea oleaster), the progenitor of the cultivated olive. It is still present in most coastal areas of the Mediterranean basin. (Zohary & Spiegel-Roy 1975)

With the fall of the Roman empire, information about the olive becomes scarce. Its cultivation dropped dramatically, with the reduction in population and the abandonment of large areas that took place during the early middle ages. This was not the case in the territories under Arab rule, where the crop remained important, to the point that its cultivation was forbidden in Sicily in order to protect production in North Africa, probably the main producer at the time.

In Europe, olive oil acquired new importance only in the 16th–17th centuries, when it became a significant trading commodity for Venetians, who imported it from their Aegean possessions such as Crete and Cyprus. It must be remembered that oil was not only used as food; it also had great importance as a medicine, and for illumination, massaging, soap production and wool processing. Thus, olive plantations slowly began to spread in the Mediterranean areas where they can still be found today, with the exception of most of northern Africa, where they were reintroduced on a large scale much more recently. The arrival of the olive in the western and southern hemisphere is also recent history. Argentina, California, Australia and South Africa – where the enthusiasm of Mediterranean migrants for the crop had ensured its introduction – all proved to have suitable environments for commercial olive cultivation.

Both the early domestication of the olive and its diffusion in the Mediterranean region have been favoured, or should we more correctly say permitted, by the ability of the species to be propagated with simple techniques. It is certain that the earliest domesticated fruit crops could be transferred from the bush or the forest (where they were browsed by animals and man) via the most rudimentary forms of cultivation, thanks to the possibility of stabilising positive and superior characters that the early gatherers noticed in the wild plants, when transition from hunting/gathering to agriculture was taking place. This suitability to asexual propagation was true for all ancient fruit crops, such as pomegranate, grapevine, date and fig.

Figure 1.2. Young olive orchard in Western Australia. New plantations in southern hemisphere countries follow the most modern technical guidelines.

Figure 1.3. Exceptionally grown olive tree in Greenough, Western Australia.

The olive, from the origins of its cultivation until the second half of the 19th century, was only propagated agamically, by using either large cuttings, ovules or rooted suckers. The slowness of its diffusion, which was a general feature of fruit crops until recently, made it a normal practice to resort to on-farm propagation, which meant the production of small numbers of trees each year. This also meant the selection and stabilisation of local cultivars, which, given the antiquity of the crop and its spread in the region, account for the high number of genotypes found in the different Mediterranean countries.

Caruso (1883) questioned these direct multiplication methods, instead advocating the advantages of indirect multiplication, i.e. grafting on seedlings. In reality, the main real advantage of the grafting technique was the possibility of mass propagating the olive, and therefore dropping the prices of the individual plants. This would produce several further advantages: cultivars with superior characteristics could easily be introduced in new areas of cultivation, planting density could be increased, and rootstocks with positive characteristics could be used. Therefore, although several researchers (Vivenza 1926; Casella 1934; Morettini 1942) in the 20th century demonstrated that direct multiplication was just as good as grafting with respect to olive-tree life and performance, the new technique spread due to the need to provide large numbers of plants for the expanding olive industry. The old systems of propagation survived until recently in many areas including Southern Italy and Andalusia (Spain), but grafting certainly became by far the most important propagation technique. The supremacy of grafting over direct rooting, apart from never-ending disputes over the field performance of the trees (see 4.5), was granted by the simple fact that sufficiently good rooting could only be obtained by cuttings 4 or more years old, and by relatively large ovules and suckers, which made the availability of propagation material quite scarce.

It is not surprising then that research into the possibility of using 1- or 2-year-old olive cuttings for direct propagation started as early as 1940. Research centred on cutting characteristics, rooting substances and greenhouse environment. In less than two decades, direct propagation of olive semi-hardwood cuttings became a technical reality. Although the technique would undergo several improvements to increase its efficiency, the fundamental acquisition was available by the mid-1950s. This did not mean that grafting practices with olives were suddenly stopped. On the contrary, in Italy, which is the main producing country for olive nursery trees, cutting propagation slowly conquered a share of the market, which remained around 50% until the 1980s, increasing its share in the following decade to over 70%. More recently, olive tree production by micropropagation techniques is also gaining favour, after decades of research in numerous research stations.

This reconquered supremacy of direct multiplication over grafting does not mean that this issue is settled forever; on the contrary, grafting is a technique that will most likely accompany the olive industry into the foreseeable future. The reasons for this are numerous, but some are particularly important. In the first place, not all cultivars are easily (i.e. economically) propagated from cuttings or in vitro, such as many table olive cultivars. Secondly, direct multiplication involves the use of more or less complex structures, which require money and training, and in many situations (such as new areas in developing countries) one or both of them may not be available. Thirdly, although the availability of clonal rootstocks is at present quite limited, research is involved in selecting rootstock genotypes which can improve the industry through effects on tree size, yield efficiency and stress tolerance.

The main lesson to draw from this short history of the olive and its propagation is that all available techniques of propagation have had their importance in different historical times, although one technique has at times prevailed over others. On the other hand, the economic success of a commercial olive grove

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