From a distance, this olive grove on the outskirts of Córdoba looks just like any other field. But it is home for more than 1,000 olive cultivars from 29 countries, from Iran to the Americas, passing through all of the Mediterranean Basin.
Walking through the lines of olive trees at the World Germplasm Bank is a fascinating introduction to the large, and often unacknowledged, diversity of olives.
From a distance, this olive grove at Alameda del Obispo, a facility of the Andalusian Institute of Agricultural and Fisheries Research and Training (IFAPA) on the outskirts of Córdoba, looks just like any other field.
But a closer look reveals an astounding range of shapes and colors: from the small green Arbequina to the white Belica and the big and round Gordal olives.
This grove is home for more than 1,000 olive cultivars from 29 countries, from Iran to the Americas, passing through all of the Mediterranean Basin.
Olive trees from Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Albania, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Argentina, the USA and Spain live side by side here.
“Founded in 1972 by the Spanish Government with the collaboration of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the International Olive Council, this is the oldest and largest international collection of olive trees cultivars in the world,” Angelina Belaj, director of the Germplasm Bank, tells Olive Oil Times.
The main goal of this collection, Belaj explains, is to gather and preserve the largest possible share of the genetic diversity of olive trees.
The germplasm bank grows two or three specimens of each cultivar in Córdoba and, in case something went wrong with this olive grove, they also keep a backup — a duplicate of it — in another estate the IFAPA runs in the province of Jaén.
“Despite being an important crop and most of the commercial olive trees come from just a handful of cultivars, this species has managed to preserve a remarkable genetic diversity. We believe that there are around 2,000 varieties worldwide,” says Belaj.
Some olive varieties can have different names in different countries, regions or even villages, so the first job of the scientist working here is to determine whether from a genetic perspective those names and origins hide known cultivars.
It’s a sort of detective work that often leads scientists to trace back the origin of cultivars whose expansion has sometimes been intimately linked with historical events and movements of populations across the Mediterranean throughout the centuries.
“It’s important to get to know the genetic part, but also the agronomic and morphologic part. It is useful as well to know the languages and history of the territories where the olives are grown,” Belaj points out.
“For instance, in Morocco, they have an important cultivar called Picholine Marrocaine, which from a genetic point of view is exactly the same as the one we call Cañivano Blanco in Andalusia. And it is also identical to an Algerian variety called Siwash.” More