Mediterranean in Mayfair

The silvery leaves of olive trees shimmer in Jeremy Rafferty's pots, a lovely sunny sight in a chilly clime.

The little patio of Rafferty's Mayfair rowhouse holds containers with 16 olive trees. Having them, he says, "is so cool." (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)

Jeremy Rafferty lives in Mayfair, not the Mediterranean, but it's no matter. He's growing 16 olive trees in containers on the tiny front patio of his rowhouse.

"Just to have them is so cool," says Rafferty, a building engineer at Bregy Elementary School in South Philadelphia. "I'm always looking for the rare and unusual."

Olive trees are unusual around here, all right - at least, in the ground. They suffer superficial damage when temperatures dip into the low 20s, turn into serious casualties at about 15 degrees, and die in the single digits.

So, no, our Mid-Atlantic winters are too severe to risk actually planting olive trees, although . . .

There are perennial stories of old-world gardeners in northern climes covering their trees with drop cloths, as they might a fig tree, or wrapping them, mummy-like, in burlap, or successfully bending and burying them over the winter.

"We've heard of all these things, but we don't have any personal experience, just anecdotes," says Cary Cloud, who owns Olive Tree Growers in Dunnellon, Fla. (, with his wife, Jean.

He's had plenty of phone calls, though.

There was the guy from Germany who wanted to buy 50,000 olive trees. "He's up on the North Sea. My God, man," Cloud says.

And the fellow from New Hampshire who wanted to plant an olive grove. "He said, 'I've been to Israel. It snows in Israel and it snows here and they have olive trees,' " Cloud recalls. "But it's one thing when it snows at 30 degrees, another when it's 15 below zero."

Most American olive groves are in California, with a smattering in Arizona and two or three in Texas. Cloud grows eight varieties, primarily 'Arbequina,' which is self-fertile (does not need another tree to pollinate it), highly adaptable and cold-tolerant. It grows to about 15 feet high and 10 feet wide, and is well-suited to the Philadelphia region.

As Cloud recommends, and Rafferty knows, pots are the way to go here. The trees can stay outside all summer and into fall, and be brought inside in winter.

Last winter, Rafferty's first as an olive grower, he trimmed the branches and cut back the roots about an inch all the way around, then repotted his trees in bigger containers and added mulch to insulate them.

Lacking a fancy sunroom, Rafferty stored the trees in his north-facing garage, where he'd replaced four particle-board panels with Plexiglas to let the light in. Still, the trees got only about four or five hours of sunlight a day, and over the winter, many of them dropped leaves.

"But they all came back," says Rafferty, 36, who grew up in the Morrell Park section of the city.

Now, here they are, a mini-grove from the Mediterranean Basin enjoying the blistering heat of August in the Far Northeast. Doesn't have quite the panache of, say, Tuscany or Puglia, but olive trees are olive trees.

"The leaves are gorgeous," says Rafferty, as we sit around his Bed, Bath & Beyond patio table, imagining ourselves figures on an ancient Etruscan frieze.

The leaves are slim and silvery, blinking in the sunlight and quivering in the near-dead air. Easy to understand why this tree's appeal goes way beyond its fruit, oil, and wood.

"There's a certain romance about the olive tree and that's as it should be. It's the most important tree in the history of Western culture," says Cloud, who's been growing olive trees in Florida since 1989 and selling them since 2005.

Rafferty and Cloud aren't alone in their fascination with the European olive. Thomas Jefferson was smitten from the get-go.

In 1787, the 44-year-old future president was traveling by mule train from Nice, over the Alps, to Turin, on a mission to investigate why Europeans preferred Italian to Carolina rice. He saw olive trees at every turn, prompting him to write, upon his return to Paris, a three-page homage to the Olea europaea.

He called the olive "the richest gift of heaven . . . the most interesting plant in existence."

Jefferson considered olive trees "manna from heaven," says Peter Hatch, director of gardens and grounds at Monticello, Jefferson's estate in Charlottesville, Va., but his attempts to cultivate them in South Carolina and at home ultimately failed.

In 1993, after an olive oil convention in New York City, a 60-year-old specimen was donated to Monticello, and it produced a good crop of olives almost immediately. "But that winter it went to 10 below zero and killed the tree," says Hatch, who nonetheless was inspired to name his just-born daughter Olivia.

Five years ago, when Cloud Olive Tree Growers began marketing olive trees to retail nurseries, "they laughed us out of the room," Cloud says. Business is pretty good these days, even in Philadelphia and other points north, and among pool-owners and residents of apartments and condos.

Cloud attributes this, in part, to the growing interest in container gardening. About 18 percent of American households do at least some planting in pots, according to the National Gardening Association.

Consumers seem to love Mediterranean cuisine and all things Italian. "And it's amazing how many people have spent time in Italy, or Spain and Greece, and seen olive trees," Cloud says.

For some, there's a religious component; the Bible and the Koran contain many olive references. And plenty of immigrants from the world's olive-producing regions, including North Africa and the Middle East, have settled in the United States. (Take a cab sometime in Center City.)

It doesn't hurt that the olive tree is such a looker.

Rafferty grows many varieties - santa caterina, coratina, cerignola, and taggiasca from Italy; biancolilla, cerasuola, and nocellara del belice from Sicily; kalamata and amfissa from Greece; nicoise or cailletier from France, and hojiblanca from Spain.

Olives suffer few pests and diseases and are extremely drought-tolerant once established in the ground, but they can easily dry out in containers. During this brutal summer, Rafferty's been watering every other day.

In the future, he may harvest his olives - several trees are already fruiting - and cure them in brine for eating. For now, Rafferty says he's enjoying his trees "because they're beautiful."

Frank Cucchiara experiences their beauty a different way.

For the last few years, this semiretired electrical contractor from Westwood, N.J., has been cultivating a bonsai olive tree that grew from a stump his grandfather brought on a boat from Sicily to New York in 1911. (His grandfather became a barber here, but in Sciacca, he had a 250-tree olive grove that Cucchiara's cousins run today.)

The tree, which family members believe is about 400 years old, has been pruned and trained in the Japanese tradition to be only 18 inches high and wide and 12 inches deep.

"It looks ancient. When people see it, jaws drop," says Cucchiara, who is paying an artist in England $600 to make a large clay pot for it. In winter, he stores the tree, wrapped in towels, in his 45-degree garage, along with about 30 other bonsai maples, junipers, and tropicals.

Rafferty, who also grows Meyer lemons, blood oranges, tobacco, and stevia, has taken bonsai courses, too, and may get out his pruners if his olive trees get too big. For now, he thins, pinches, and prunes to let light in, encourage fruiting, and create a desirable wine-glass shape.

For all this talk of olives and wine glasses, you'd think Rafferty's wife - who, unlike her Scottish-German husband, had four grandparents from Italy - would be crazy about his Mediterranean hobby.

Not quite. "I love olives and the trees are pretty," says Regina Miciche, 35, "but to me, they're just something else to take care of. I'd rather have more flowers."

Like prudent spouses everywhere, though, Miciche recognizes the value of going along to get along. "As long as he's willing to do the work," she says sweetly, "I'm fine with it."

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