Ancient olive trees are some of the first trees domesticated by civilization. These majestic trees have been spread for more than a thousand years among the 27 municipalities that comprise the areas of Castellón, Tarragona and Teruel mainly, where the population of olive trees has more than 6000 specimens.
Olive trees are one of the longest-lived trees found in nature, partly due to the great resistance they show against adverse weather conditions such as droughts. Their fruit has marked and conditioned Mediterranean culture and gastronomy over years.
Ancient olive trees' importance as a unique World Heritage Site is so relevant that two years ago UNESCO marked a special date on the calendar to honour these incredible trees: November 26th has become World Olive Tree Day. These mitic plants are considered not only as a source of a highly beneficial product for health but also as a fundamental part of our diet and the engine of the economy of many people.
Ancient olive trees: history and characteristics
The cultivation of olive trees is a Mediterranean tradition that began with the Phoenicians and that has been maintained over time thanks to a solid cultural tradition that has been passed from generation to generation until today. These trees can narrate great stories for the simple fact of existing.
The Maestrazgo area has witnessed the cultural tradition of planting olive trees since back to Roman times. The area has managed to make tradition and modernity begin to understand each other and respect each other for a common good: the conservation of ancient olive trees.
The oldest olive tree in Spain is considered to have been planted 1702 years ago, and it is located in the area of Ulldecona, Tarragona. It is an olive tree of the Farga variety, which results in an aromatic extra virgin olive oil that is pleasant to the senses.
The ancient olive tree is a born fighter: conditioned to surviving in poor and very dry soils for long seasonal periods. Its incredible resistance allows it to grow in these circumstances without the quality of its products being minimally affected.
One of its strengths in creating one of the greatest resistance in the plant kingdom lies in its base structure: the diameter of its trunk grows spiral and becomes thicker and thicker over the years, providing great stability to the tree.
However, and despite the sizes that the trees can reach (10 metres diameter of the trunk and up to 30 metres in height of the crown), the production of olives they give is quite small. Its fruits ripen throughout the summer and until the beginning of December, although the trend in the sector is to harvest the rather green olives to guarantee that the subsequent extra virgin olive oil has the appropriate acidity and bitterness.
The gold of the Mediterranean: Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)
Extra virgin olive oil is one of the most representative products of the Mediterranean diet, recognized both nationally and internationally as a unique product with a prominent role in the preparation of all kinds of dishes.
Olive trees were one of the first plants domesticated by people, and the production of extra virgin olive oil is a business that has supported hundreds of generations economically, and whose business has been on the rise in recent decades.
Currently, Spain is the largest producer of extra virgin olive oil in the European Union, according to the latest data provided by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and the main exporter worldwide. This data is not only the trend of recent years but the foresee of an increase in the future.
Present and future of ancient olive trees
Given that the demand for extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is increasing worldwide, the cultivation of olive trees has spread beyond the Mediterranean borders, and it is already common to find olive trees in latitudes between 30º and 40º, which aspire to have, at some point, ancient olive trees capable of producing high-quality oils with similar characteristics to those from their original area.
Although the ancient olive trees are a symbol of affection for the tradition of agriculture and the patience that respect for nature entails, there is also a dark side linked to mere economic speculation.
As it is a low production plant, many farmers do not see the possibility of maintaining a profitable business from its fruits and decide that it is more lucrative to sell these trees than to preserve them as part of the heritage of Humanity and as a legacy for the future generations.
Millenary olive trees can reach prices of up to 50,000 euros in the luxury market. Among its main buyers are countries from Northern Europe and the East countries, which generally look for these trees as ornamental elements for gardens, golf courses, luxury hotels, among other areas inside and outside cities.
The sale of ancient olive trees is a lucrative business on the rise that, however, leaves a very slight profit to its owners, since these exorbitant sales are usually carried out by private companies specialised in the luxury market. The farmer receives a minimum income from the sale, and the cultural loss is immense since by selling the territory a part of History is lost and the legacy of future generations is truncated. The ancient olive trees have been the reference for many generations, and their value goes far beyond the purely economic value.
Saving the ancient olive trees is a collective responsibility, and requires citizen and institutional involvement. A farmer deserves to be able to live from his fields, but without adequate support, it is difficult for this sector to maintain a tradition that cannot guarantee them a minimum subsistence.
It is in our hands to be able to preserve the ancient olive trees from extinction and maintain the place they deserve as part of our history. The work of the associations or the law approved by the Parliament of Catalonia to save these trees from plundering might be some of the first good steps towards conserving a fairer landscape.
Link to the trailer for the film “El Olivo”, by Iciar Bollarín https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KC6qSUFMTEo