The Angel Tree - Book Review

Source: The Olive Oil Source
June 06, 2005

The Angel Tree: The Enchanting Quest for the World's Oldest Olive Tree

An interesting book about olive trees and the Mediterranean.  As a landscape architect, the author is sent on a search for the world's oldest olive tree by his megamillionaire client who needs a trophy for his home in Provence.  The author finds intrigue, history and nearly crushes the spirit of an entire village in Southern Spain when he tries to abscond with their ancient "Angel tree".  The tree is the soul and protector of the village, purporting to even cure depression with raindrops collected from its leaves. 

Olive trees may life forever but their productivity drops off when they become true Methuselahs.  Old trees outside Seville and Tyre were once bulldozed or dynamited and burnt for firewood to make way for new blood.  These days these venerable trees are exported around the world to grace faux Tuscan villas in Silicon Valley or chateaus in the South of France.

Author Alex Dingwall-Main soon finds that there is no sure way to date an olive tree as it can rebound from roots after being burnt to the ground. Size is a poor indicator and the dense wood resists ring dating.  How to determine if the monster tree he sees in Greece is truly thousands of years old or just a 500 year old youngster blessed with good growing conditions?

Dingwall-Main's writing style is at times light and self deprecating while at other times he seems to boast of his association with the wealthy glitterati who are his clients.  He includes may thoughtful facts about olive culture and history.  Looking for a three thousand old tree requires finding one planted a thousand years before the Greeks and Romans spread olive trees around the Mediterranean.

Just when the author begins to question the morality of his quest, the wealthy client has an attack of conscious and they craft a clever compromise.  It lets the "Angel Tree" stay where it is but still provides the millionaire  with the world's oldest tree.

It is difficult to find a tree here in California over a few hundred years, just youngsters by the measure of this story, but good specimens are sought after.  Old trees with massive trunks are not unknown in the central valley.  Nothing lends an aura of patrician stability better than a hoary olive tree beside your terra cotta tiled Mediterranean style mansion.

There are several tree movers in the state specializing in olive trees.  Often the size of trees moved is limited by height and width restrictions during transportation. Trees are pruned severely to fit on trucks and under power lines. They can take years to recover their height and foliage. There is no shortage of average mature trees as olive growers bulldoze orchards as imports kill off the domestic canned black olive market.  Olive varieties good for canning are typically not profitable for olive oil.  When you buy a mature tree you are really paying for transportation, planting and sometimes a guarantee of viability.

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