At One with Nature - In Praise of Ancient Trees

Sue Parker explores links between cultures and cultivation

Based on an article by Sue Parker in Algarve Resident, May 2015. Algarve Resident is the leading English-language newspaper and the source of essential information for Residents and would-be Residents in the Algarve. More information about Algarve Resident...

Many of us define culture in terms of art, films, theatre performances and museums – so called ‘high culture’. There is no doubt that a visit to a museum can tell you a lot about how our various societies developed, but long before we built a stage or made a film, our customs and social behaviour were driven by imperatives far removed from getting dressed up and travelling to see a show.

A magnificent old olive tree

A magnificent old Olive tree in disused farmland

For me a key way of understanding the nature of a community is to visit the countryside.  Agriculture can tell us a lot about what people grow, cook and eat now, but the remnants of old crops, trees in particular,  and the structure of the landscape reveal much about how ancient societies lived. The battle for survival was the pre-eminent force in the lives of our ancestors and the growing and foraging of food dominated their daily lives when ‘art’ in the form of singing, dancing,  painting and sculpture was mainly driven by ritualistic worship of anything that was thought likely to positively influence abundance.

Ancient trees speak volumes about how our ancestors lived.  Today we value old trees for their beauty, and as wildlife havens where numerous creatures, plants and fungi live; but to those who cultivated them their productiveness was a matter of life or death.  The people of Vanuatu, many of whom grow all their own food, have had a devastating reminder of the vulnerability of food supplies that we, who pop down to the supermarket several times a week, cannot even begin to imagine.

Harvested Cork Oak bark

The harvesting of cork causes little disturbance to the environment

Recently planted trees in the Algarve tend to fall into ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ categories.  Starting with the downright ugly we have replaced traditional and environmentally sustainable crops with vast tracts of eucalyptus cultivated as a fast-growing cash crop for the paper pulp industry. In a region where forest fires are common, the oily eucalyptus tree has added considerably to the impact of fires, which now spread more quickly and over much larger areas.  Added to this is the fact that these non-native trees deplete the ground beneath them of water, nutrients and light, leaving little or no opportunity for an understory of native shrubs and flowers to develop.  The harvesting of eucalyptus by clear felling brutalises the landscape and causes severe soil erosion, particularly as these trees are planted on steep mountain slopes.  In the lowlands, much of the land previously cultivated for almonds, figs and other crops is now used for intensively grown citrus trees that have a huge impact on water resources, and thus wildlife.

Up in the mountains where the temperatures are cooler and rainfall higher there are still old oak and pine woodlands where you can enjoy a shady ramble.  They are dominated by Cork Oak Quercus suber, and the continuing although declining economic importance of this crop in providing stoppers for wine bottles ensures some level of protection. By comparison with other unsustainable plantations the production of Cork Oak, which requires the bark of a tree to be stripped every ten years, causes little disturbance to the other plants around. These trees can remain in production for up to 170 years.  Mature specimens are not only majestically beautiful but they also support a rich biodiversity of fungi, animals and other plants, the latter creating a colourful understory dominated by the Strawberry Tree Arbutus unedo, Green Lavender Lavandula viridis and Tree Heath Erica arborea.  Up in the rolling countryside of the Guadiana Valley the famously delicious Black Pigs gorge themselves on acorns – another reason to protect iconic oak trees. Between Monchique and Picota there are still a few specimens of the deciduous oak Quercus canariensis, a common species of the oak woodlands of the region before Neolithic settlers cleared areas to grow crops.

An old oak is an invaluable haven for wildlife

Old oak trees are invaluable havens for wildlife

Pine woodlands are relatively common throughout lowland Algarve.  Leaving aside the regimented plantations of Stone or Umbrella pines Pinus pinea which are grown for the delicious edible pine nuts (why are they so expensive in the Algarve compared to other places?), other pine woodlands consisting mainly of Maritime Pine Pinus pinaster are also of ecological interest.  In the autumn they are an excellent repository of fine edible fungi species including Ceps Boletus edulis, Chanterelles Cantharellus cibarius and Horn of Plenty Craterellus cornucopioides while in spring they shelter many wonderful wildflowers including various tongue orchids and the enigmatic Violet Limodore Limodorum abortivum.

No article, no matter how short, about the trees of the Algarve would be complete without some reference to the most characteristic cultivated tree of the Mediterranean region – the Olive tree.  Its distribution defines the region where it has been cultivated and, in turn, it has shaped the culture and economy of its people for thousands of years. Some root stocks are so old that they are reputed to have been growing in New Testament times. The gnarled beauty of old olives, standing like solitary statues in abandoned olive groves, invokes a deep resonance with our ancestors who cultivated them and enjoyed their fruits just as we do today.

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