In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus and his indomitable wife, Penelope, set the modern standard for using olive trees as interior decor: the foundation of their bed was carved into the roots of a living olive tree that had grown deep into the hillside where they built their home. And while Homer’s olive tree stood as an exquisite symbol of the couple’s deeply rooted love, if you decide to keep an olive tree in your home, I recommend keeping it in a large pot so you can move it around for optimal decor and plant health.
Of course, if we’re talking about growing olive trees in containers, we know they’re not going to reach mythic proportions. But because most olives are too sensitive to frost to thrive in our region, containers are a wise approach to cultivating them here. Choosing a variety well suited to interior environments, planting it in appropriate soil and pruning it to manage growth and size make growing an olive tree indoors possible — but keeping it alive is a labor of love. No wonder Homer used one to symbolize Penelope and Odysseus’ marriage.
These trees grow in rocky, dry, hot regions with mild winters. The pots they grow in must drain very efficiently, so choose one made of a natural material like terra-cotta or even wood, and be sure to add a good percentage of perlite or expanded shale to your potting soil so the roots don’t rot. Also, keep in mind that trees are not going to produce abundantly if they live inside at all times. In an ideal situation, your tree would be outside during the hot, dry season and indoors during the coldest months, with a daily minimum of six hours of direct sunlight. These containerized trees do well on patios and are commonly grown this way even in their native regions.
Even restricted to containers, size can be an issue when growing trees indoors. Luckily, fruiting olive trees can be kept petite with careful pruning. Pruning is best performed at the end of winter when the tree is dormant and hasn’t yet begun to flower, so you can clearly see its frame. Trim any “suckers” growing around the base of the tree or new growths protruding from the crotches of major branches, and be sure to remove dead wood. The canopy of the tree needs light to reach into the crown for optimal olive production, and major pruning will remove up to 25 percent of growth. Curiously enough, the olive tree will respond by growing more when it is pruned heavily; perhaps there’s a Homeric lesson hidden in there somewhere as well.
When you go to invest in your own olive tree, note that buying a year-old, foot-tall tree will typically cost somewhere between $25 and $50. They grow slowly, too, and it will take anywhere from three to five years to see fruit, if you see any at all. Select a tree that has evenly distributed main branches, and avoid or remove crossed branches. It’s best if you can look at the roots when buying a tree. They should spread out evenly and easily when you go to pot the plant, and they should not be growing out of the pot’s drainage holes. Similarly, make sure your pot has ample space for the tree you buy, and pot up appropriately as your olive tree grows so its roots have room to feed the tree.
Olive trees typically require pollinating companions, and multiple varietals are usually carefully arranged in groves to provide optimal fruiting; however, the Texas-friendly “Arbequina” variety is self-pollinating. Its fruit can be used for table olives or pressed for oil, if you are so inclined. However, if you simply want the exquisite matte leaves and a piece of the Mediterranean palette to grace your home, there are plenty of decorative varietals from which to choose. They offer a striking contrast to most traditional houseplants and, like Penelope’s, they ultimately symbolize your epic dedication and perseverance.
Written by Sarah J. Nielsen • Photography by Nazar Hrabovyi and the Bialons