In Italian folklore, an olive branch hung over a doorway will ward off evil spirits.
Olive leaf extract (Olea europaea) is derived, as you might guess, from the leaves of the olive tree. According to Greek myth, the olive tree was a gift to humankind from the goddess Athena, so she might win a coveted city from Poseidon. Zeus was enchanted by the tree and its ability to heal wounds, cure illness, provide fuel for lamps and nourish the body. The city became Athens, and the tree was one of its most sacred symbols—a person found guilty of destroying one could be exiled or executed.
• Genus: Olea europaea
• Prefers dry, rocky soil
• Traditionally used to reduce fever
• According to Botanist James A. Duke, Iranians use an olive leaf decoction to cure coughs, while in Algeria, olive leaves are chewed to relieve toothaches.
• Zones 8 to 10
As its Mediterranean origins might suggest, the olive tree is drought-resistant and prefers warm weather, full sun and the dry, limestone-bearing rocky soil characteristic of mountainous coasts. A single tree can live for hundreds or even thousands of years, and most are grown through propagation of limb cuttings. They are rarely taller than 45 feet and many cultivars grow well from cuttings in large containers.
Whether the tree is grown in a pot at home or in a wide plantation field, humanity has found many uses for the olive tree over the 6,000 years of its cultivation, especially for olives and olive oil. The leaves have remained a strong symbol and a promising medicine throughout Western history.
History and Symbolism of Olive Leaf
The olive tree is perhaps the most often mentioned plant in the Bible—and was important enough that Moses is said to have excluded olive tree growers from military service. Full-leafed olive branches have come to symbolize prosperity and peace in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures. Other meanings attached to the leaves include benediction and purification in the gilded crowns of Roman Caesars, chastity in classical depictions of brides, and heavenly power in the tombs of ancient Egyptian pharaohs. Peace remains the most popular association—the branch has appeared on the seal of the United Nations and on British and American coins as a symbol of peace.
Medicinal Uses of Olive Leaf
Olive leaves have been used by traditional Mediterranean medical practitioners for thousands of years, most often in poultices and decoctions to reduce fever and fight infection. The leaves sped wound healing, soothed rashes and were said to cleanse the liver. Some other historic uses include remedies for high blood pressure, high blood sugar and anxiety.
Current studies haven’t progressed past animal trials, but the initial results are a promising continuation of traditional uses. In addition to lowering fevers, olive leaf extract has been found to be effective in preventing or mitigating the spread of many infectious diseases. The compound oleuropein is considered the source of the plant’s medicinal qualities. When it breaks down in the body, it interferes with the ability of bacteria, viruses and fungi to replicate themselves and spread, thus allowing the immune system to combat infection more effectively. The process has been documented with viruses such as herpes, influenza, Epstein-Barr virus and HIV. An article in the journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications states that olive leaf extract can both inhibit acute infection with HIV-1 (the most common strain of the disease) and reverse some of the effects associated with the disease.
Researchers conducting animal studies in Europe have found that olive leaf extract can help lower blood pressure and improve circulation by relaxing arterial walls. It also may be helpful in normalizing heart arrhythmias. Olive leaf has shown promise in diabetes treatments: A study featured in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology suggests that the extract inhibits neural damage caused by high blood sugar levels. Olive leaf also may help regulate blood sugar levels, and some modern Europeans reportedly use olive leaf tea for this purpose.
Olive leaf extract has been used to treat chronic fatigue syndrome, inflammatory arthritis and psoriasis. There are reportedly no adverse side effects to olive leaf extract, but it’s still a good idea to speak with your health practitioner if you wish to try olive leaf as a supplement. Some herbs and supplements can interfere with prescribed medications.
Boost your Body with Olive Leaf
Olive leaf tea can help protect your immune system from colds, flu and chronic fatigue. Steep 20 to 30 grams (approximately 2 tablespoons) dried olive leaf in 2 cups of boiling water for 20 minutes. Drink 3 half-cups daily. —Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine
Lauren Holt in an editorial intern who enjoys cooking and gardening with herbs.