White Olives: The Rare Olives Since Ancient Time

Photo by Marcello Mastrorilli

In the market, olives which we usually heard of are black and green olives. Have you heard of white olive? It is the most eye-catching olive in the market. White olives are known as Olea europaea var. leucocarpa or bajda or bianca (in Italian “white”) or biancolilla /cannellina (after their resemblance to white cannellini beans) have actually been around for centuries and are from the tree called Leucocarpa (the Greek leukos (white) and karpos (flesh or pulp))or Leucolea.


Where are White Olives from?


Out of hundreds of European olive (Olea europaea) varieties, the white olive is just one of them found from Portugal east across the Mediterranean all the way to the Arabian Peninsula, which are including Greece, southern Italy (Tuscany and Calabria), as well as some areas along the Mediterranean coasts of northern Africa and Malta.


“Mainly widespread in the regions of southern Italy, with a strong presence in Calabria, it was probably introduced during Magna Graecia’s colonization,” Innocenzo Muzzalupo, a researcher at the Council for Agricultural Research and Economics, Research Centre for Olive, Citrus and Tree Fruit (CREA-OFA), told Olive Oil Times.


How are white olives used?


In fact, some white olives trees are reported to have been grown in close proximity to convents and white color became synonymous with purity. Hence, it is believed that the white olives were traditionally used for religious purposes. There is also evidence said that emperors and kings were once anointed with a special olive oil produced by the white olives during coronation ceremony. This is further evidence of how ancient people, regardless of their belief, associated the olive tree and olive oil with sacredness, as happened in Athens, and many other places throughout the Mediterranean, to such an extent that nowadays the olive tree is universally considered a symbol of peace.


During the Renaissance, the white olives were known across Europe as perlina Maltese (Maltese pearls) back in the days of the Knights of the Order of Saint John, known also as, the Knights of Malta, a multinational order of Crusaders that held the island from 1530 to 1798. Hence, it has been used for decorating the gardens of wealthy knights. The white olives were also featured in recipes for one of the country’s signature dishes called rabbit stew.

Photo by Gino Vulcano

Why are they whites?


According to research, olive ripening involves two phases, which are the way and synthesis of chlorophyll that cause the olive fruit to turn into green color during the 1st phase, then followed by the degradation of chlorophyll that will cause the olive fruit to lose its color during the 2nd phase. At the same time, the synthesis of anthocyanins and other flavonoids are activated which turn the olive fruit to bluish or blackish color. 


 “In the white olives cultivar, flavonoids and anthocyanins activation does not occur at all,” by a researcher called Muzzalupo. Hence, white olives are the only variety which remains white at any stage of maturation. Even if we leave it on the trees until late winter, we will find them still in white color until it turns to yellowish due to lipid oxidation.


Researchers also found that the transcription of specific genes in olives might be blocked at the level of certain enzymes by a process of regulation then, they discovered which regulatory mechanisms occur, through specific microRNAs.


“White olives originate from mutations affecting the production of anthocyanins, those pigments typical of what you see in conventional ripened olives, so that at the full ripening stage they do not become black,” explained Antonella Pasqualone, professor of food science and technology at the University of Bari in southern Italy. The white olives, she added, “are not very diffused and are normally rare.”


What do white olives taste like?


White olives reportedly taste sweeter than commercially produced green and black olives due to they have comparatively lower levels of bitter-tasting antioxidants and this lead to it has a much shorter shelf life which the antioxidants should be act as the natural preservative of olives.


“A table olive of fairly good quality, but does not keep well,” observed the late, pioneering Maltese botanist John Borg in his 1922 study, Cultivation and Diseases of Fruit Trees in the Maltese Islands.



1)    https://www.greenprophet.com/2020/02/the-revival-of-the-rare-white-olive/

2)    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317958342_The_White_Olives_of_Malta

3)    https://www.oliveoiltimes.com/production/leucocarpa-the-dazzling-white-olive-from-magna-graecia/64475

4)    https://www.finedininglovers.com/article/white-olives