Can Faith Bring Back a Sickly but Beloved Olive Tree?

Illustration by Hannah Agosta

It’s dying.” For the third time in as many days, I heard this pronouncement from my husband, Ben. Looking at our once robust olive tree, now shedding leaves and looking sickly, it was hard to disagree. Still, I couldn’t accept it.

“I think it’s just going through something,” I responded.

“Yes, its final days. We’ll have to replace it.”

Impossible. No tree could replace what was now the centerpiece of our backyard. And the cost to purchase a tree that size—much too expensive. Maybe it was in shock from the bad pruning it had several weeks earlier. The once perfectly shaped tree, now lopsided, raised its bare, arthritic branches toward the sky as if asking for divine intervention. Even it knew things were bad. We’d had the tree too many years to give up on it. I’d figure out something, but I wasn’t sure what. Ben simply shook his head, deciding to humor me until I saw things his way.

A local nursery wasn’t much help but provided the name of an arborist who might be. A call to him was encouraging at first.

“Olive trees sometimes get a unique disease. The only way you’ll know is if scrapings are taken from the tree and sent to a lab. It could take weeks, or maybe months, to get the results.”

Months? “But then I’ll know what to do to treat it,” I said, hope rising.

“No, unfortunately, there is no treatment. The tree eventually dies.”

“I think I’ll pass on the lab work then. I really don’t see the point.”

I was back to square one, now wondering if the tree did have this mysterious disease but not wanting to find out.

I remembered when I first saw olive trees, growing by the hundreds on hillsides in Italy, with only the elements providing for them. Their strong trunks and delicate gray-green leaves swaying in the breeze were a sight to behold. If these trees grew in California, I wanted one. But now why wasn’t nature kind enough to keep my tree growing?

When we began landscaping our first home in Orange, I was thrilled to find a nursery with small olive trees. We had one planted in our front yard, nurturing it carefully. As our landscaping matured, the tree didn’t. It didn’t die, but it didn’t get any bigger. We began to call it our olive bush. Eventually, we needed to replace it with a tree that looked like one. It didn’t seem as though I’d ever have the beautiful tree I wanted.

Years later, we began looking for a home closer to the coast. We spent many Sundays at open houses, but nothing we saw matched our taste and budget. One morning, I read about a closeout of homes in our targeted area. Models were available for sale. A model meant upgrades and landscaping. All we’d have to do is move in. Would we like them, and would they be affordable?

With great anticipation, we headed south on Crown Valley to the development in Laguna Niguel. A two-story model caught our interest. Its location on a cul-de-sac, along with a beautiful hillside view, made it appealing. We liked what we saw as we walked through the house. When we went out on the patio, I stopped cold. There in the center of a beautiful garden stood a fully grown, healthy olive tree. It could have been transplanted from Italy; it was so perfect. Like an answer to a long-held wish, it was a sign the house would be ours. After some negotiating, it was.

Throughout the years, this centerpiece of our backyard stood strong and tall. Occasionally, it would produce olives. The first time this happened, I planned to cure them myself. Imagine, specially cured olives from my own tree. Except when I researched the process—the brining, the time it took—I balked. What if I didn’t get it right and poisoned us? Buying olives at the market seemed a better idea. Eventually, the tree stopped producing olives. Some time after that, it stopped producing leaves; then it started dropping leaves. The tree was no longer thriving. I preferred to think it was on hiatus, especially when my husband spoke about replacing our “dying” tree.

We continued to disagree about the tree’s future. Ben waited me out while I searched for answers. Certainly, the bad pruning did us no favors. But it didn’t, in my hopeful opinion, seem severe enough to end the tree’s life.

Sometimes, answers are found where you least expect them. I found mine in a novel I was reading. I’ve always contended that one can learn a lot reading fiction. Although stories are the result of an author’s imagination, they usually contain real, even educational, facts. In the case of the tree, my aha moment came through a discussion between two fictional people.

A romantic relationship seemed to be unraveling. As the couple discussed their problems, the woman compared their situation to the way an olive tree can look as though it’s dying and then slowly return to life. She was sure they were doing the same thing, and if they just hung in, their love would be back on track.

Was it as simple as that? I wish the character had elaborated, but then the story wasn’t really about olive trees. I went outside and studied my tree with new hope. No sign of restoration yet, but the leaves were no longer dropping. Whoever wrote the book must have known a thing or two about olive trees, and I was eager to believe it. I could hardly wait to tell Ben.

Weeks went by, and I scrutinized the tree almost daily. One day, I saw a few green buds on one branch. Was my growing hope making me hallucinate? On closer inspection, there were other buds as well. The tree was waking up. Every day, I watched it slowly come back to life. Soon, there were no bare branches. As the tree filled out, it once again became rounded and robust. It no longer bears olives, but brining olives will never be on my to-do list.

Other trees grace our yard, but none are as special or as beautiful to me as my olive tree. Recently, we needed to have all our trees pruned. The only instruction I gave the gardeners before they began cutting: “Don’t touch the olive tree! It’s perfect as is.”

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