It’s All About Balance – The Story of Black Olive Tree

We love all plants here, and have rarely met a plant that we could not find some likeable feature in.  One of things we like most about plants is the rich and interesting stories and histories about them.   One of the driving motivations for this project is preserving those stories and passing them on.

The story of how the Black Olive Tree came to be introduced into Florida, and then evolved to be one of the most popular and widely used street and urban trees in South Florida is an interesting bit of horticultural history, and offers a great example of the gardening axiom that should always be kept in mind when choosing plants is that no choice will be always be perfect in every way on every day. 


When choosing plants, there is always a fine balance that exists between good and bad, feature and fault, pro and con. That which is a desirable feature in one application, or even within a certain season, or growth stage can be a fault in another. The tipping of that scale between good and bad is subjective and most often little more than the opinion of the observer, as well as the simple matter of  how bad do you want it?   For example the effort necessary to protect those gorgeous, exotic, but sensitive to the cold, tropical  blooming treasures from freezing during the winter, or the replacement of seasonal annuals when they pass their prime.   What is simply too much work and bother for one gardener is a labor of love for another.  With plants beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder, as what is, in the opinion of one, an ugly, stunted unbalanced eyesore, has character and visual appeal to another. But, more about that on some other day.

The Black Olive Tree (Bucida buceras) is a tropical tree native to Central America and the Caribbean. Some experts believe its native range includes the Florida Keys, but others believe this particular species was introduced later by foreigners.  However the Dwarf Black Olive (Bucida molentii syn spinosa), which reaches only about 8 feet tall and has very small leaves,  probably is indigenous to the Keys and perhaps some other coastal areas of South Florida.

Before this tree gained commercial popularity for ornamental use, its primary use was as a lumber source.  The wood is dense, heavy and very close grained, and is favorite choice of boat builders.  However, it was primarily harvested from the wild and not cultivated for that use.  Harvesting is now restricted or prohibited in many locations.

Generally these trees will reach a mature height ranging from 20 to 80 feet, develop strong, sturdy, large diameter trunks that are covered by a thick, dense gray, deeply fissured bark. The tree canopy grows dense and tight, with most having an outward, spreading horizontal habit.

Capture 2

Despite the common name, this tree (Bucida buceras) is completely unrelated to the edible olive (Olea europaea). The Black Olive nomer is likely the result of the vague resemblance of the fruit to the edible olive (mostly round with a single seed). The fruit of Bucida buceras however has little pulp and is not edible.


Small smooth oval leaves that emerge a light medium green and mature to a deep, slightly blue toned green grow along unusual zig-zagged formed stems. Some trees also grow a sharp thorn-like spine on old growth behind the leaf node.

IMG_3736 (2)

Although the spring bloom is described as nondescript by horticultural experts, I would disagree.  The tiny yellowish green to golden beige petal-less flowers cover the entire canopy of the tree making it appear like a brown sugar coated confection when the sun shines through, proving that flowers do not always have to be large and brightly colored to be breathtakingly beautiful.  The inedible fruit sets a few weeks later and is attractive to birds.


It is not often adversely effected by pests or disease. The caterpillar of the Galeria Moth, Characoma nilotica will sometimes feed on the flowers in the spring, this was once considered to be a major fault of the Black Olive Tree, but that was back in the days when many believed the only good bug was a dead one.  The caterpillars are actually nothing more than a self limiting, short term nuisance and while they can cause some defoliation and browning sometimes, they do not cause any permanent damage.

Garella Moth

Staining of surfaces underneath Black Olive Trees which was once also considered a major fault of the tree is actually just a natural, organic and temporary side effect of the ….err……waste products produced by the caterpillar (scientifically referred to as frass) and yes, it means what you think it means).

As a whole the species is highly salt tolerant and puts down deep anchoring roots making it able to endure high winds with little damage.  Breakage within the canopy and the loss of geotrophism (knowing up from down) was also called out as a fault in this species following hurricane Andrew.  However, subsequent and more recent high wind storm events have shown that the Black Olive Trees held up as well as any other species, and better than most.  The odd angled growth that was once observed and written up by an expert as being specific to the Black Olive was later also seen in live oaks, pines and other species in central Florida following Hurricanes Charley, Jean, Frances and Wilma, which hit that area back to back in 2004.

The root system of the Black Olive Tree grows deep and downward and does not spread outward so this tree can be safely planted within 6 to 8 feet of walls, sidewalks, etc without fear of future problems developing.

But its best and most appealing feature perhaps is not the aesthetic beauty of the large, dense, horizontal spread of the canopy but rather that promise of a cool, dark respite of relief from the tropical sun that beckons from underneath it.

The number of Black Olive Trees growing in South Florida stands as a living testament to the power of sharing and community. The species was originally brought to the Miami area from Jamaica by a Catholic priest some time in the early 1900s. He planted a pair at his church. The Priest then gave away seeds to parishioners and others who admired the trees, and more seed was passed on by those folks, and by the early 1940’s Black Olive Trees had become a common feature in the Dade County landscape,  the overwhelming majority no doubt originating from the passing along of seed by individuals, as the Black Olive Tree had not yet garnered the notice of commercial landscape growers.

In the late 1950’s the City of Miami circulated a bid proposal for the planting of approximately 100 Black Olive Trees along a new Parkway, but after searching for the trees for the project far and wide, the idea was ultimately abandoned due to the limited commercial availability of the species. However, the compounding effect of the broad distribution of this proposal served to awaken the interest of local commercial nursery growers.

Once a species catches on in the landscape trade, growers begin, of course, to study and learn how to efficiently produce it in large numbers as quickly as possible, but secondly they begin to observe the growth habit and features closely in hopes of spotting cultivars with different, stronger or more desirable features than the original species in general.

The original Bucida buceras had a lot going for them.  However, the species is extremely difficult to propagate from vegetative cuttings, and a significant number of seedling grown trees are not ultimately marketable due to significant differences in mature height, growth habit and speed of growth.

By the mid 70’s, although commercial demand for the Black Olive Tree remained strong, the nursery profession had a love/hate relationship with it.  Frequently it is as if the universe somehow gets tuned in to our problems with plants, as the solutions often present themselves serendipitously.

In the early 1970’s commercial growers David Biggars and his son  (and my good friend) Dave Jr. collected seed from Bucida molentii (spinosa) at the Subtropical Experiment Station in Homestead.  There were also Bucida buceras trees growing in the surrounding area.  The crop of starter plants produced from this seed was sold to David Sinclair at Sinclair Landscape Nursery in Miami.  As this crop developed, David Sinclair noticed a tree growing differently from the rest the crop, which was not an uncommon finding when dealing with this genus.  But there was something about that one tree that piqued his interest.

As it would turn out the tree that David Sinclair would ultimately come to name the superior and improved cultivar Shady Lady, and it would eventually become the industry standard for the popular species.

The Shady Lady Black Olive grows more dense, tight, uniform, and smaller.  The average 20 to 30 feet mature height makes it better suited for street, parking lot, and other commercial and urban applications.

Another favorite use of the Shady Lady Black Olive is for Bonsai.  Although the Dwarf Black Olive (Bucida molentii (syn spinosa)) is generally the preferred type for miniaturization, the Shady Lady Black Olive makes an excellent large Garden Bonsai specimen.

In short, as trees goes, the Shady Lady Black Olive is a fine example of balance, and while not perfect in every way, in the right setting, she certainly brings an elegance, style and grace to a tropical landscape that by far outweighs her few faults… my humble opinion (of course).

However, better to try one and see if you agree Buy Shady Lady Black Olive

1 thought on “It’s All About Balance – The Story of Black Olive Tree

  1. This was the best and most informative article that we read on our Shady Ladies. It helped very much to know, as we are going through defoliation and thought we had a serious disease or insect, but now we know we just have to be patient and it will grow back.
    We do not trim our Shady Ladies any, above 4-5 ft from the ground. They have been planted for 5 years now and are 25 to 30 ft tall. One is nice and fully round and the other was tall and more rectangular oval shape but I have not done any trimming on the inside.. Is that really necessary to do other than wind breakage? Will they both grow and fill out to have the natural drooping arm like design of most mature Shady Lady trees?

    If we need trimming and they’re so tall and we’re in our seventies, I don’t know who could trim them and who has the knowledge to trim a Shady Lady properly! Do you have any suggestions for Bonita Springs Florida? We are between Fort Myers and Naples Florida.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *