The Brown Olive

Olea africana

Mutamaiyu (Kikiyu), K'ango (Luo), Kumunyubuti (Luhya), Oloirien (Maasai), Muthata (Meru), Tamiyai (Samburu)

A Story from Karichota

Around halfway between the Karichota houses and the Burguret River, there is an astonishing Mutero tree which has been set fire to by honey hunters, had limbs sawn off by carvers, been rubbed raw by elephants having a good scratch as they pass by on the migration path and full of mysterious fist-sized holes – yet still the magnificent OLEA AFRICANA survives and sends its glistening greenery towards the heavens.

During the bad old days of deforestation, up to the early 1990s, a large number of Mutero trees were removed from the Burguret forest; its wood is particularly prized by carvers because the wood glows golden when polished. It has a fascinating, intricate grain which seems to start at the outside of the tree with a complex, striated structure that can be seen if you look carefully at my drawing (above). Although its twisted nature makes it hard to saw into the large pieces needed for furniture, it is often used for making rungus, (clubs) bowls and tableware.

Fortunately, the Mutero seems to regenerate quite quickly after being assaulted and our forest is full of wildlings springing up healthily.

Amongst the reasons for its current scarcity is that is so very useful in many ways. One of my favourite delicacies is mursik; generally Mutero is used to cleanse the inside of the calabash in which the magical drink is stored, which contributes to its unique flavour. Mutero leaves are also part of a beekeeper’s equipment, being burned and rubbed into the beehive in order to welcome the bees. (I will write more about this fascinating ceremony in more detail at a later date.)

One of the curious idiosyncrasies of the Mutero is that the older trunks have many Tolkeinesque holes along their trunks for which I am yet to find an explanation. It seems that they are not the work of woodpeckers, or ants, or nesting hornbills, or even the hyrax who serenade us through the night. They could possibly be traps, as portrayed in the adventure movie, “Keith, Stef, Mo and William go Oliveing”. William won an Olivier Award for his work on that film. (See picture.)

Ironically, this beautiful and useful tree has become an invasive pest in Australia and Hawaii where it was declared illegal in 1993 after being imported as a hedging plant in the 19th Century; in a reversal of our Kenyan situation, indigenous Australian gum trees are being overrun by African Olives that are particularly flammable during forest fires.

One of the first questions visitors ask about the Mutero is, “are the fruits edible?”

Answers to this are mixed; some farmers claim to be farming them for olive oil (in Taita) and perfume manufacturers certainly utilize their oil. However, it is unlikely that our olives will produce enough flesh around the seed to make production viable. But given that most olive plantations take up to 30 years to establish and experiments with grafting have not been successful, I think the answer is we are still unsure.

Seedlings for this wonderful and important tree are easily found at Mt. Kenya Trust and Ontilili Forest Station; please plant as many as you have space for!