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May 18th, 2011 SARAH SMITH | Culture Features
 

The Olive Gardener

Where no man has grown before.

culturefeat_olives_3728A young olive tree (variety: Bidh El Hammam) from Rare Plant Research in Oregon City. - IMAGE: Mike Perrault
     
Tags: Gardening
The freshest tree to emerge in Portland’s urban landscape is actually so ancient, it makes the Old Testament look like a Twitter feed.

It’s not a palm or banana, persimmon or kumquat. It’s the olive (Olea europaea), whose fruit and oil have made star turns in the service of humanity for 5,000 years, and are referenced in cultural miracles from Moses to Matisse.

Northwesterners tend to associate olive trees with faraway climates, where the wines are big and red and the coffees small and black. Portland’s 5,800-specimen collection at Hoyt Arboretum, for example, is olive-free: “Even though we can get, at times, a Mediterranean climate, a lot of times our weather’s a little too wet and our soil is not well-drained enough for them,” says James Allison of Portland Parks.

But it’s become an open secret in recent years among Stumptown cognescenti that it’s quite possible to grow the Mediterranean icon in Portland, with a little care and good fortune in getting the baby trees beyond the frost-vulnerable stages. Once well established in a sunny spot with good drainage, olives blossom white in June, bear fruit in fall and become rugged and drought-resistant. Unlike most fruit trees, they have the added ornamental virtue of being evergreen.

Lately, olives have started to show off their silvery tresses in public spaces such as McMenamins Edgefield, where an ‘Arbequina’ has graced the distillery for five years.

SURVIVING AND THRIVING: A young ‘Bidh el Hammam’ olive tree (left) flourishes in an unheated greenhouse at Rare Plant Research while a mature ‘Sevillano’ graces the landscape nearby.
Credits: Mike Perrault

Livingscape nursery displays olives in gallon pots on the stairs of its cheery converted Craftsman on North Vancouver Avenue. “People are definitely surprised. They ask how hardy they are,” says plant buyer Eilidh MacLean. “They’re actually very popular. We sell a lot of them during the season. We sold 10 the other day to a couple hoping to start their own grove.” 

Suzy Hancock, general manager of Portland Nursery, sees olives as the latest wrinkle in the locavore movement. “It’s tied in with the whole growing-your-own-food thing—although I don’t think most people realize you don’t just pick olives off the tree and eat them [brining is necessary to cure the fruit]. It’s the romance of cooking using herbs you grew yourself, dining al fresco with your olive tree. I think it just completes the picture.”

A force behind the scenes of the local olive trend is Rare Plant Research, which grows and supplies exotic and tropical greenery to retailers, including Portland Nursery. Its owner, gregarious, globe-trotting plant hunter Burl Mostul, who resembles a compact, warmed-up version of John Kitzhaber, has spent decades on the trail of plants “new to science.”

Despite that longstanding pursuit of the undocumented and unknown, Mostul’s latest passion is one of the most familiar edibles in cultivation—albeit not in northerly climates like Portland’s. Mostul says he was driving through southern Spain’s Andalusia region a decade ago when he was smitten by the sight of a sublimely soulful olive tree. It was shaped into a behemoth bonsai, and Mostul instantly knew he had to have one, “but I didn’t think I could. I didn’t think they would grow here.”

And he didn’t have the ideal situation. Until a couple of years ago, he lived and ran his business in a semi-sketchy area of Southeast (he says KXL garden personality Mike Darcy, an Oswegoan, once visited and muttered, “Burl, we’ve got to get you out of here.”). Four years ago, Mostul and his wife, Cindy, began to build an eye-popping setting for an olive collection: a Romanesque stone castle complete with tower, rising out of an otherwise everyday Oregon City pasture.

“You just don’t see too many Spanish monasteries around here,” says Hancock, who visited the newly completed Villa Catalana and urged Mostul to propagate olive trees for retail sale. Portland Nursery sold about 100 last year, she says, and expects to sell more this year.

The Mostuls’ vision of Medieval Europe in Clackamas County can be a rural traffic-stopper, and has not gone uncommented upon. Burl says the dairy farmer next door has fielded inquires like, “So, who’s the rich California bastard in the castle?” (This tickles Mostul, who grew up laboring on his father’s vegetable farms in nearby Carver.)

The grounds, including his wholesale plant business—a cluster of lunar-looking domed greenhouses down the hill from the castle—is only open to the public twice a year, for a $10 summer-evening party July 9 and a free annual plant sale this weekend. About 200 of the 500 young olives he’s growing and testing for cold-hardiness will be for sale (from $19.50 for a one-gallon to $49.50 for a seven-gallon container) among an array of more unusual plants (if you know what a bromeliad is or yearn to grow a hardy banana, this event is for you). 

Last year, Mostul finally acquired a proper set of big, sculptural olive trees. After some sleuthing, he located a Northern Californian who was giving the stink-eye to an old orchard on his land for presenting an obstacle to his dream of horses grazing in an emerald field. So Mostul, who’s been on botanic explorations from China to Mexico to South Africa, departed on perhaps his strangest plant hunt of all—to the self-described Olive City of Corning, Calif.

He rented a front-loader and, in a few hours, severely pruned and dug seven huge 50-to-75-year-old ‘Sevillano’ olives (lacking a tap root, olives can be transplanted with just a tiny collar of roots, and their branches rejuvenate even after vigorous trimming). Then he loaded his instant olive orchard onto a flatbed truck and drove it home. 

Suddenly, his new villa looks a lot less like an homage to Canby, and a lot more like Catalonia.

For others who don’t wish to wait half a century for a sapling to become a gnarled giant, Mostul has two of the senior ‘Sevillanos’ for sale. For $3,000, you too could sip Barolo under one of the oldest olive trees in northern Oregon.

But then you’ll want the castle. 


OLIVE RESOURCES: Rareplantresearch.com; and two farms growing commercial olive orchards in the Willamette Valley, oregonolivetrees.com and redridgefarms.com.

GO: Rare Plant Research open garden and sale, 11900 S Criteser Road, Oregon City, 780-6200. 11 am-4 pm Saturday-Sunday, May 21-22. Bistro lunch and coffee available, along with King’s Raven Winery tastings and sales. Bring a photo of your garden and receive ideas from garden designers Lucy Hardiman, Nancy Goldman, Margaret de Haas van Dorsser and Mary Baum. Free.

 
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