Monumental Trees of Cyprus Represent Attempt to Create Elite Cultivar

Researchers speculate that early olive growers had grafted native centennial trees with others imported from Greece and Lebabnon to selectively breed for desirable traits.

A recent study of monumental olive trees in Cyprus has shed light on a sometimes calculated, but always complicated agricultural history.

“Based on the data of the current study it is safe to formulate the conclusion that oleiculture in Cyprus has a complex history,” Nikolaos Nikoloudakis of Cyprus University of Technology wrote.

“It is possible that hybridization between local and or foreign material, followed by the selection of elite genotypes has repeatedly occurred in different eras with the goal of ameliorating the existing genotypes.”

Researchers from Cyprus University of Technology and Agricultural University of Athens found a diverse amount of genetic material among these iconic olive trees. Since these trees range from hundreds to thousands of years old, the researchers see the preservation of this gene pool as immensely important for the future of olive trees.

“These are trees that have withstood extensive and severe biotic and abiotic adversities; hence constitute a valuable and unexploited genetic pool,” said Andreas Katsiotis also of Cyprus University of Technology.

The researchers used government records and field studies to identify and sample 52 trees across northern Cyprus. They took DNA samples from the leaves of each of the trees and compared them with a benchmark of 20 known Greek cultivars.

The researchers suspect that the original olive growers were trying to create an elite cultivar of olive trees using an agricultural technique known as grafting, which involves combining parts of two or more plants so they grow together as one.

Much to their surprise, they discovered that two-thirds of the monumental olive trees that were sampled had been grafted.

This finding led researchers to speculate that early olive growers had grafted the original centennial trees with others imported from Greece and Lebanon in order to selectively breed for desirable traits. Eventually, the practice ceased and these grafted trees started to reproduce naturally.

“The richness in genetic resources is probably the outcome of the early domestication of olive trees in Cyprus that occurred in antiquity, while genetic variability accumulated through time,” Nikoloudakis wrote. “Hence, these entries [samples] represent an unexploited gene pool.” More