The Mission Olive is California's olive. We use it in our products and choose locally grown oil because of its exceptionally high polyphenol levels. Polyphenols are powerful antioxidants found in olives that contribute to the protection of cells and blood lipids from oxidative stress. These unique antioxidants are what give premium extra virgin olive oil the spicy or peppery taste. If your olive oil is bland and tasteless, it lacks this quality.
The Mission Olive was widely grown during California's olive boom years but there are few groves remaining in the state today. These heritage trees are part of California's rich agricultural past and thanks to a few forward-thinking family ranches, this special tree is being preserved and kept from disappearing amidst the growth of high-density, industrial olive farming in the state.
The Mission Olive in California
Compared to the ancient trees of the Mediterranean, the Mission Olive is a very young variety. It was thought to be of Spanish origin, but recent DNA testing could not match it with any of the 700 known olive varieties. Researchers did find markers that link it to the ancient Moroccan variety, Picholine Marocaine, but the Mission remains a unique variety to the Americas.
The olive was brought to California from Mexico in 1769 by Spain's Franciscan missionaries when they began establishing missions in what was then, Alta California. Seeds and cuttings of olive trees from the missions in Baja California were used but why this variety was originally selected by Spain is unknown.
Agriculture in the Mission System
The history of the missions is a complex and tragic one. Spain was the architect of the missions but the indigenous people built them and labored in the gardens, orchards, and vineyards and for a time they were thriving. The missions were planned as self-sufficient communities and were populated with native people who were forcibly brought in to live, work, and assimilate into this new culture. In an effort to colonize the Pacific coast, the Spanish aggressively pressed the local Indian bands into service of the Spanish Crown, with disastrous results.
If there is a silver lining to the mission structure it is the detailed records that the priests kept of the people that lived within the missions. These records are a valuable historical record for relatives of the Mission Indians and those who engaged with the missions. Also preserved from this period are agricultural remnants of what was at the time, a vast operation including livestock, vineyards, orchards, olive groves, mills, and general commerce. Today we have heritage pomegranates, figs, pepper, quince, pears, olives and grapes that are direct descendants of the crops introduced to California at the missions.
The mission era influenced the architecture, art, language, and economy of California but it also erased culture, tradition, and customs of the native people who were hunter gatherers in the region for millennia and who died in great numbers during this period. In 1833 the missions were secularized and within a few decades they were abandoned and in ruin.
In the mid-nineteenth century following the California Gold Rush, there was an olive boom when Italian immigrants turned their eye to the olive market and began cultivating new groves in the state. In the last 25 years, as the health properties of olive oil have become more widely appreciated, the olive industry in California was reborn in an effort to compete with European producers. Most of the new plantings are the super high-density system where trees are spaced close together and kept small for greater production and are not the Mission variety.
The Olive and Us
Olive trees are intertwined in human history. The ancient trees still living could tell the story of great cultures that have risen and civilizations that have fallen while it has remained rooted in place. The oldest olive fossils date back more than 20 million years and the oldest olive oil found is believed to be over 8,000 years old.
Today, olive trees that are hundreds, and some thousands, of years old are still producing olives. In addition to food, medicine, and oil for light, the olive tree has been a symbol of peace, wisdom, fertility, friendship, prosperity, and victory throughout the world for thousands of years.
The nourishing and healing power of the olive is found in entire tree. The leaves, seed, fruit and wood are valuable and unique in their beneficial properties. We'll show the benefits of using Mission Olive Oil in skincare in upcoming posts.