The Olive as Art

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The Grumpy Gardener – When Ancient Olive Trees Become An (Expensive) Art Form

On the hills above the quaint coastal village of Roquebrune-Cap-Matin in the Alpes Maritimes stands an olive tree (Olea europeaea) said to be over two thousand years old.

The signpost marking the two thousand year old Olive tree (Olivier Millenaire) at Roquebrune -Cap-Matin  (Credit Mike Alexander)

This magnificent Olivier millenaire is one of the Arbres remarkable de France or notable trees of France and is living testimony to the hardiness and longevity of these wonderful trees — its roots are said to go down to a depth of 20 metres and the local tourist authorities believe it may have been planted by the Romans.

The letter “G” on the map below shows visitors to the eastern French Riviera where to find the tree:

"G" marks the spot on this Google map of France's oldest olive tree at Roquebrune -Cap-Matin

Among other well-aging trees found in France, bearing the “arbre remarquable” classification, is one in the village of L’Union near Toulouse — also said to be a thousand years old. Another can be found at Beausoleil in the Alpes Maritime. This one has an 11m diameter trunk and is said to be older than a 1000 years.

As might be expected the oldest olive tree in the world is thought to be the Elia Vouvon in Kolyvari, Crete –scientists estimate its age at more than 4000 years. Totally accurate dating by radioisotopes cannot be performed as with the passing of time the heart wood in the tree has long since disintegrated, though the tree still produces fruit. Some 90 % of all olive trees in existence are found around the Meditteranean.

For the past 20 years or so it has been possible to purchase gnarled and ancient olive trees from specialist garden centres and nurseries around Europe. The cost of these trees varies from several hundred to 30 or 40,000 euros depending on tree age and size. While this may seem an exorbitant amount to pay for a plant, if one considers the tree as a living work of art – an investment even for future onward sale, these high prices gain some perspective!

Two thousand year old Olive tree (Olivier Millenaire) at Roquebrune -Cap-Matin  (Credit Mike Alexander)

The National Geographic video below offers a short history of the olive:

Man has been cultivating olives for more than 6000 years which means the tree comes with considerable baggage and plenty of associated folklore. Ancient Greeks revered the olive tree and it is frequently mentioned in the Bible. Not only do the trees produce fine tasting fruit but their oil is supposed to be one of the often quoted essential ingredients for a healthy “Mediterranean lifestyle”.

It is only fairly recently that they have become highly priced ornamental garden accessories. The boosting of their market value started in Spain — which with some 300 million trees planted on 2 024 000 ha, produces 45% of the world’s total olive oil output.

Spanish olive farmers in the Andalusian region (where approximately 81% of the country’s total olive oil is grown) found themselves caught up in a massive real estate bubble between 1996 and 2008. Almost accidentally they discovered the windfall they stood to gain from ripping up ancient olive trees and selling them to the nursery industry ahead of converting their farms into luxury golf courses and multiple villa estates.

So suddenly ancient trees that had stood in the same place for hundreds or even thousands of years were being trucked across Europe and even further afield to the oil-rich countries of the Middle East.

This unexpected goldmine for Spanish farmers soon attracted opposition from environmental groups which described the removal of the trees as “looting” and destruction of an important part of their environmental and economic heritage. The province of Valencia banned removal of any tree over 500 years old and there are calls for the ban to be extended to include trees that are a mere 250 years old.

One of the reasons for the sudden success of this shortsighted trade in ancient trees is that olives are very tolerant of transplanting and their craggy, evergreen beauty can bring instant, eye-catching maturity to a new garden or estate. They are tolerant of both acid and alkaline soils and as long as they don’t find themselves with wet feet they will survive temperatures as low as -10C.

On a slightly less impressive scale in terms of price and thus “art investment”, newly cultivated much more affordable olive trees are readily available, and will soon grow into focal trees that marry perfectly with the French environment. Prune them lightly for shape from mid-spring and feed with a slow release fertilizer during the summer months.

More about the “Arbres remarkable de France

Le Chêne d’AllouvilleAllouville is the oldest oak tree in France. Located in the village of Allouville-Bellefosse in Normandy, it contains two superimposed chapels inside its trunk. These was built in the 17th century by the Abbot of Détroit, when the tree was already more than 500 years old.  Standing as a witness to the history of France, the Millennium Oak would have seen the troops of William the Conqueror pass by, and was nearly destroyed during the Revolution. Halved by lightning in 1912, the tree is today the object of constant care and conservation. It was declared a historic monument in 1932, and each year attracts thousands of visitors.

The oak at Alouville - Le chêne d'Alouville Caux, Seine-Maritime

The book below by author Robert Bourdu, offers a tour of France via its trees. In France there are hundreds of documented trees, with  a popular tradition or associated with serious historical data, and which play a role in events in the nation’s history…

History of France as told by its trees  (Credit Amazon)

Writer: Mike Alexander
Follow Mike on Twitter 

Grumpy Gardener
Our Grumpy Gardener has been gardening professionally in France for more years than he cares to remember and before that in Africa and the UK. Today he happily shares his expertise with French News Online readers. Your gardening questions are welcome and while they may not be individually answered, they may form the basis of future monthly columns.

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