Olives have been cultivated in parts of the Mediterranean—including Crete and Syria—for at least 5,000 years. In addition, there is carbon-dating evidence of olive tree presence in Spain as many as 6,000–8,000 years ago. This ancient and legendary tree was also native to parts of Asia and Africa.
It’s not clear exactly how olive trees arrived in the U.S., but it’s clear that the time frame was much later, during the 1500-1700’s. Spanish colonizers of North America definitely brought olive trees across the Atlantic Ocean during the 1500-1700’s, and while some may have been brought directly to the region which is now California, olive trees may also have been brought to the region from Mexico, where cultivation by the Spanish was already underway.
Olives constitute one of the world’s largest fruit crops, with more than 25 million acres of olive trees planted worldwide. (On a worldwide basis, olives are produced in greater amounts than either grapes, apples, or oranges.) Spain is the largest single producer of olives at approximately 6 million tons per year. Italy is second at approximately 3.5 million tons, followed by Greece at 2.5 million. Turkey and Syria are the next major olive producers. Mediterranean production of olives currently involves approximately 800 million trees. 90% of all Mediterranean olives are crushed for the production of olive oil, with the remaining 10% kept in whole food form for eating.