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Black olive: South Florida’s ‘shady lady’

July 18, 2014
By JOYCE COMINGORE - Garden Club of Cape Coral ( , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

I noticed an ad in the paper, selling shady ladies In my younger years, the definition of a shady lady was one of ill-repute. I remembered having heard a popular song in the '50s and '60s about a shady lady, done by The Ames Brothers and Archie Bleyer in the '50s and Dean Martin and Ray Charles in the '60s, then the Statler Brothers in their Classics Album in 1995. In 2007, The Roches did a version for its album. With research, I found that it was "The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane." She was a young woman who drove the whole town nuts by throwing come-hither looks at every Tom, Dick and Harry, and when offered liquid refreshments, never said no - the last line of the song stated that she was only "nine days old."

Having grown horticulturally wiser, I know that "shady lady" pertains to a variety of the black olive trees.

South Florida has two types of black olives (Bucida buceras); there is the large old-time regular one, sometimes called Oxhorn bucida or Gregorywood, and "Shady Lady," a newer, smaller improved variety of the black olive tree. These evergreen members of the Combretaceae family produce no olives, just small hard round nutlets that may resemble olives. Recorded in error as to being a Florida native, it arrived from Central America and the Caribbean. The exquisite excellence of the black olive tree makes it one of the three most popular street trees in southern Florida. Love their elegant lady like branches with their hands (tips) drooping downward, I could spot them a mile away. They seem to grow in layers.

Julia Francis McHugh Morton, an American author and botanist, was a research professor of biology and director of the Morton Collectanea at the University of Miami. She and her husband, Kendal Morton, studied plant life in Nassau, where she published manuscripts and photographs, illustrating nearly all of her publications. After World War II, the Mortons came to the Subtropical Experimental Station in Homestead, Fla., where they produced their book "400 Plants of South Florida." Moving to the University of Miami, they had nearly 500 drawers of plant files with 15,000 species. Kendal Morton died in 1964; Julia retired from teaching in 1973. She received an honorary doctorate from Florida State in 1973. In 1974, Julia published her book of "500 Plants of South Florida," and was elected a Fellow of the Linnnean Society London, having never formally attended college. She was known worldwide for her knowledge of horticulture.

There is a tremendous article she wrote on the back olive tree describing it as "an erect tree, 24 to 80 feet tall, with trunk attaining up to 3 feet in diameter. Of variable growth habit, its tiered branches are more or less horizontal, drooping at the ends. Twigs are forked (zigzag) and bare to the tips where the close-set, alternate, spatulate to elliptic leaves are whorled. The leaves are leathery, to 3 1/2 inches long. Some trees are spineless but others often bear sharp spines 1/4 to 3/4 inches long, on the young, lower branches. The black olive is difficult to propagate"

Seeds have a habit of not growing into the same characteristics as their parents, so tip cuttings of softwood in a mist bed and air layering are the best way to reproduce black olives. A moderate grower, salt tolerant, full to partial sun, it does best in zone 10 and above, freezing at 25 degrees. I was here when all the lovelies froze. We all held our breath, and many did come back from their roots to be bushes, with many shoots sprouting up. They may be evergreen, but there is a steady fall of the leaves all year, replacing leaves as it grows.

Mature trees flower in April and early May with clusters of tiny yellow flowers without petals, but in such abundance it overwhelms the tree, looking, as one observer stated, "like frosting on the branches." Each flower contains one seed.

Now this is where the black olive becomes of ill-repute. Towns that lined their sidewalks and parking lots with these lovelies had to tear out trees, sidewalks, parking lots and the cement uprooted by the unkind black olive's roots. Also, the attraction of the eriphyid mite, which transforms the ovary of each flower into galls resembling long, string beans, some 4 to 6 feet long, that shed, stain and litter sidewalks, streets and cars parked under them. Those green beans are not seedpods, they are galls. The name oxhorn bucida comes because these galls look like horns of oxen. People insist that the leaves cause staining, but no, the staining is caused by the next insect to attack - the caterpillar's frass (poop). The black olive caterpillar was eating the flowers, leaves and galls. The caterpillar has been called "bungee" caterpillar because it rappels by its silk cord and spins around in people's faces. Now this doesn't happen every year, just maybe every 5 to 7 years in large numbers. Planting them in a grassy area can solve this. It only happens for a couple of months and the rest of the year it's clean. I understand Doug Caldwell of the Collier County Extension Office has a very helpful movie on YouTube addressing this issue:

According to the IFAS Invasive list, Bucida buceras, should be treated with caution in the south zone of Florida.

Now for the good news - they may start out in a triangular shape, but eventually their tendency to grow sideways makes them look like they've been sat upon. A dense sideways oval crown makes them an excellent shade tree, they are wide. Since this tree doesn't go dormant and pruning stimulates new growth, don't prune in the winter, a killing freeze zaps the new shoots. Without the caterpillars and mites, this is a clean, fine textured tree having a lovely shape. The small leaves and fallen blossoms just blow away with the winds.

Shady lady has breeding and is a smaller, generally about a 35 by 35 foot, and is an improved variety without aggressive roots and insect problems. Still, plant it over a grassy area.

Thank a tree any tree for our clean air.

Joyce Comingore is a Master Gardener, hibiscus enthusiast and member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.



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