Olive plants have long played an important role in Christian symbolism. It was an olive branch that marked the end of the flood in the biblical episode of Noah’s ark, and in Psalms 51:10 the fruit of the olive tree stands as a symbol of the blessings of God in the lives of believers.
The byproduct of a rare genetic mutation, the Leucolea olive tree, as it is scientifically known, is currently only found in a handful of locations in Southern Italy, Greece, and Malta. It is nearly impossible to farm this tree commercially, something that led to its near disappearance.
In Italy, most white olive trees are found in the southern region of Calabria, where they probably arrived centuries ago from Greece. Here, researchers have gathered oral histories about these ancient trees and found out that for centuries oil sourced from white olives was used to create sacramental oil for baptisms, blessings, and other rituals.
For this reason, white olive trees were often planted outside churches and monasteries across the region. Also known as the “Ulivo della Madonna,” or Madonna’s olive tree, they stood out for the white color of their olives and came to symbolize the miraculous nature of the Madonna’s interventions.
In the past decades, with the abandonment of monasteries across Italy, the trees have become increasingly rare. Today, in the southern Italian region of Calabria where most of these rare trees are found, researchers have counted only about 50 white olive trees. Some of them are 300 years old.
But recent interest in these trees is leading to a cultural revival. In 2011, a delegation of farmers and researchers from Calabria gifted a white olive tree to the Director of the Vatican Gardens in order to keep a living memory of this pillar of Catholic culture.
In 2021, a white olive tree was planted in front of the municipal hall of the city of Reggio Calabria to invite citizens to promote peace and fraternity.
Most recently, in 2022, archeologist Anna Maria Rotella heard about the “Madonna’s olive tree” while conducting an excavation in Calabria and started to research these ancient plants. She has now collaborated with monasteries and churches across the region to plant white olive trees in front of 80 places of worship, increasing their overall number to 200.
Thanks to these efforts, white olive trees are slowly escaping extinction. The hope is this ancient pillar of Catholic culture will continue to exist well into the future.