Olive Crazy: All About Olives and Olive Oil
Mar 182011

Before Thomas Jefferson was our third President he was enamored of olives, not just for their delicious fruit but for “the blessings which this tree sheds on the poor” and how its oil provides “a proper and codortable nourishment.” He envisioned the poor and enslaved of the new United States as benefiting from the cultivation of the olive tree by growing an olive tree for each slave, in order to provide that slave with a more healthy diet than currently available.

By the way, I looked up codortable and didn’t find a real definition for it. I’m finishing this article assuming the word has positive connotations. If you know what it means, please let me know.

In 1787, TJ, as he is referred to on the Thomas Jefferson Monticello website, went on a more than three-month journey through Mediterranean and Alpine Europe. He gathered fruit and vegetable samples, took temperature measurements, kept a diary, and had a good time, all as a private citizen.

When he got back to Paris he wrote a glowing report about the ancient olive fruit to the South Carolina Society for Promoting Agriculture. The Society commissioned TJ to buy some olive trees and several years later they arrived in South Carolina. The intention was to establish the first American olive colony. Interestingly, Oglethorpe’s Georgia Colony had planted olive trees in the Trustees’ Garden sometime before 1735 before TJ was born. The fate of Savannah’s olive trees was in the hands of Joseph Fitzwalter, the public gardener, and Paul Amatis of Charleston who was in charge of the nursery there. Amatis was supposed to relocate his plants to the Savannah garden, but Fitzwalter and Amatis did not get along, there was a ‘my garden’s better than your garden argument’ with Amatis threatening to shoot Fitzwalter. Fitzwalter lost his job and the olive trees and other plants were left to whoever would care for them. The weather and neglect took its toll and in 1755 when Georgia’s Royal Governor, John Reynolds, razed the garden for housing all that was left were the hearty olive trees and some other fruit trees.

For thirty years, before, during and after his presidency, Thomas Jefferson, tried to make his plans work for a commercial olive colony in South Carolina and one in Georgia. He blamed the South Carolinians for “nonchalance” and the rest of the south for humidity. In truth very few of the trees he procured were planted, knowledge of olive tree root physiology (the roots hate to be wet), disease, the mercantile feud between Georgia and South Carolina, and other factors played a big part in TJ’s Olive Crazy vision going awry. He even planted different types of olives in his South Garden at Monticello. They did not do so well since Virginia is not a good fit for growing olives.

Even though Thomas Jefferson did not succeed in his great olive vision he was a frequent importer of olives and olive oil and enjoyed sharing these dishes with friends and Members of Congress. I am certain Thomas Jefferson was right. We can commercially grow olives in other parts of the United States than California. We must have the correct types (cultivars) matched with the correct conditions. For several years now a number of Georgia growers have planted olive trees for commercial production. TJ would be proud.

Number 3 – I salute you.

May the sun shine through your branches.


  One Response to “Thomas Jefferson Was Olive Crazy Too”

Comments (1)
  1. An interesting post! I knew Mr. Jefferson was interested in many things but olives. I have visited Monticello many times but thisis one subject (olives) that never stuck with me considering I was always interested in the architecture of the house or his inventions. So gentleman farmer, importer of olive trees, author of Declaration of Indpendence, founder of UVA, and Vice President and President of the USA, obviously Mr.Jefferson was a very interesting person.

    I love the historical aspects of your blog…

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