The olive is an ancient, venerable tree long valued for its fruit and the oil pressed from it. The olive can be a beautiful addition to your garden, but after an initial growth spurt, it grows quite slowly. Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate this.
The European variety of the olive tree, Olea europaea, has been a fixture on the Mediterranean coastline for centuries. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the inhabitants of the island of Crete have been cultivating olive trees since at least 3,500 B.C. Ancient books, including the Bible, mention the olive tree many times. Immigrants have since carried the olive tree with them to such diverse and far-flung locales as Greece, western Europe, Central America, California and Australia.
Olive trees are subtropical evergreens that grow to between 10 and 40 feet tall. They are astonishingly tough—the wood is rot-resistant, and if the top of the trees dies out, a new trunk can grow up from the roots. They will not flourish, however, in places where the wintertime temperature drops below 15 degrees F.
In proper growing conditions, olive trees can live a long time—recently on Crete, scientists have been documenting that some olive trees there are as much 1,000 years old. Olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem, may be older than that, though it's doubtful that they date from the time of Christ.
One drawback of olive trees, however, is that they grow to full maturity quite slowly. During the first few years of its life, an olive tree will grow rather quickly, but growth slows thereafter. If your main interest in growing olives is to harvest the fruit, you can speed the growth somewhat by carefully pruning the tree during its first five years, to create a strong, straight central trunk. People who are more interested in the ornamental value of the olive tree may prefer to let the tree grow naturally, so that it will achieve the gnarly, wizened profile so characteristic of the trees growing in Greece and the Middle East.
For the ultimate quick fix, Pieter Severynen reports in the Los Angeles Times that if you want what he calls an "instant historic garden," you can transplant very old, large olive trees with good results.