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Making a living from ancient olive trees

In more traditional American forestry circles, one can still hear “old growth” being used as a synonym for “over-mature,” the stage in the life of a tree or stand at which it begins to lose value as saw-timber. It’s worth remembering, however, that trees have many other economic values (to say nothing of cultural and ecological values) besides wood production — and sometimes these values actually increase with age. Examples include carbon sequestration, water storage and purification services, and the size of fruit or nut crops for certain species. Both sugar maples and rubber trees give more sap the older they get, so maple sugar and natural rubber production can take place within virtually unaltered old-growth landscapes. And many species of prized mushrooms do best in old-growth forests.

A less wild but still impressive example of the economic usefulness of ancient trees is exemplified by a new post at Spicelines blog, “Spain: From the Time of the Romans, an Ancient Olive Tree Bears Fruit.” The author visits a small-scale olive grower in Andalucia.

At least one of these ancient trees, which he calls “the millenary olive,” is estimated to be 1,800 years old, and may been planted in the time of the Romans. It’s an Hojiblanco and from a distance, it is an ungainly creature with branches, some broken or split, jutting at awkward angles. Only as we get closer do I see how massive the trunk is and how it spreads over the ground. It’s pockmarked with holes and deep crevasses, and on one side, where the wood has rotted away, there is a child-size hollow. “This is where I would hide myself when I was little,” Fermin says, laughing at the memory. “I would stay here for hours.”

This handsome relic still produces olives which lend their peppery, almond-like flavor to Vizcantar oils.

I’d heard that olive trees of great age were still producing oil all around the Mediterranean, so I was pleased to get this virtual tour of one such grove. Read the rest.

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