Ancient Carob

Portugal, 2010-2011.
I spent three months working as a conservation assistant, re-wilding the 6ha grounds of a holiday resort in Sesmarias, near Albufeira in the Algarve.


1. Essay


Ancient Carob

Down in the southwest of the Iberian Peninsula, there is a little part of the Algarve – a tiny stretch of coastline west from Albufeira to just short of Armação de Pêra – which does not share the Mediterranean climate experienced by the rest of Portugal’s most southerly region.

It receives less than 400ml of rainfall per year, which makes it a semi-arid climate. This strange little quirk of nature allows it to be the only place in Portugal where Carob trees are an indigenous species – the only place where they are natural, as opposed to naturalised through agriculture.

On the sandy clifftops, the Carobs form a scrub woodland with juniper, rock rose, myrtle, thyme and rosemary.  Further back from the crumbling cliff edges, stone pines raise their twisting branches above the scrub, like umbrellas blown inside out by the wind. This earns them their other common name, umbrella pine.

Iberian chiffchaffs and Sardinian warblers flit about the shorter vegetation, while family groups of azure-winged magpies tussle and argue in the pines and the tracks of red-legged partridges are printed below in the orange-yellow sand.  

The Carob tree – Árvore de Alfarrobeirasare in Portuguese – is the shaman of the tree kingdom: cultivated throughout the Mediterranean for thousands of years and mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The field guides talk of Carobs growing to ten metres tall, with sturdy branches and brown bark.

Not here. Here, Carobs look as if they were born old. Their bark is grey – split and gnarled almost as soon as seedling becomes sapling. Only their evergreen leaves look young – beautiful deep green oval leaflets arranged in pairs.

They never attain much height beyond three metres and their spreading branches droop as if it’s too much effort to find the sun. Frequently it is – left to their own devices, the branches of older trees become so heavy they split the trunk apart as they surrender to gravity. This rarely kills the trees though. It simply gives them an air of having downed tools in exhaustion at the end of the day, much like us in the garden after eight hours digging and planting in the early spring heat.

I have a favourite Carob tree on the cliffs, which can only be found with much scrambling about amongst dense, thorny vegetation. The rock atop which this ancient Carob sits, is pitted with cuplike depressions. These small bowls were not formed by the seasonal drip-drip-drip of water from the Carob leaves but from the constant touch-touch-touch of human thumbs.

The rock was a sacred place of pilgrimage long before this ancient Carob was a seedling. Century upon century of unknown people touched their thumbs to the natural depressions in the rock for luck or respect or in prayer to some unknown god or spirit. Down the centuries, the pits deepened into bowls, worn away by countless thumbs like the many old stone steps in Britain, hollowed by countless feet. 

The bowls are kept free of soil and plants by the dry climate and the shade of the spreading branches of this Carob. It squats on its rock like an old hermit, dispensing wisdom in its sweet, brown seedpods.

It is a tree to sit with – an ancient personality completely and utterly at home, in whose auspicious company I feel privileged to be present.

‘I belong here,’ the Carob says. ‘Where do you belong?’




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