Vouves, Crete, Greece

Plenty of Greek villages lay claim to ancient olive trees, some claimed to date back thousands of years. But the village of Ano Vouves near Kissamos in West Crete has a substantial claim to having the oldest olive tree in the world.

International scientific experts have carried out tests that lend some integrity to the village claim that the tree is more than 3,000 years old.

The ancient olive of Vouves has a trunk circumference measures at 12.5 metres and a trunk diameter of 4.6 metres.

The exact number of years cannot be determined as the trunk is hollow and there is no heartwood but tree ring measurement suggests an age of more than 2,000 years while scientists from the University of Crete are confident of an age nearer to 4,000 years.

Despite its age the tree continues to produce olives, the original wild olive having been grafted with the cultivar ‘tsounati’. The grafting has resulted in a remarkably sculpted trunk, and in 1990, the Vouves Olive Tree was declared a national monument.

There is now an Olive Tree Museum of Vouves in a nearby 19th-century house with exhibits of traditional tools used in olive cultivation from antiquity to the mid-20th century.

Branches from the remarkable tree were even used to create winning wreaths for competitors in both the 2004 Olympics in Athens and the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Thousands visit the impressive tree each year to marvel at its extraordinary shape and marvel at its longevity. The whole area is noted for its ancient olives with more than ten trees granted ‘monument ‘ status, as many as are found in the whole of the rest of Crete.

Olive trees (Olea europaea) have been cultivated by humans for thousands of years. They thrive in poor, sandy soil and need plenty of sunshine, a long, hot growing season and cools winters that last at least three months. Olive trees start fruiting when five to six years old and crop best when 40 to 50 years old.

While many olive trees live for centuries, the average lifespan is about 500 years. The secret to the trees’ exceptional long life is that while the trunk and branches will hollow out and die, the roots and underground parts sprout new growth over and over. 

Any disease that affects an olive grove may kill the parts of the tree that lies above ground, but the roots eventually produce a new tree. Olives are also self-pollinating so the gene pool stays more stable, with fewer genetic transcriptions and for mutations.

Olives are not the only long-lived trees around but they are in their with the most ancient of them. The Sarv-e Abarqu is a cypress in Iran thought to be at least 4,000 years old and like the Vouves is granted national monument status.