Greece’s ‘second spring’ (or first depending on ones calendrical sensibilities) arrived in early November. We have received about an inch of rain every week since then and the landscape is resonant with ambitious green shoots. In the autumn there are two major harvests. First are the grapes. This part of Attika produces Retsina, a wine with a characteristic piney flavour. The residue left behind once the fruit has been pressed makes an excellent mulch called τσίπουρα (tsipoura). Second are the olives. Once the fruit is collected the trees are pruned and the prunings burned in little bonfires up and down the country. This year the olive trees (Olea europaea) at Sparoza bore no fruit. Nor did our neighbours; a mystery with a perfectly reasonable explanation, I am sure!

Lichen on an old almond tree

Trees are a big issue this year. Apart from the olives, other trees are also being problematic. The two surviving almond trees (Prunus amygdalus), planted about fifty years ago are very sick. The flowering has been very poor and they struggle even to produce good foliage. They are also oozing a beautiful amber resin which cannot be healthy. We have decided to cut them down, leaving the sinuous branched trunks as decorative features and habitats for insects, lichens and the like.

Judas tree at the far end of the west shrubbery

Some of the judas trees (Cercis siliquiastrum) are infested with wood-eaters and slowly dying off, particularly the ones in the nursery. Their loss here will be a hard one as their winter-deciduous habit shelters the nursery plants from summer sun and wind while allowing them to get light and rain in the winter. Another painful tree related subject is the loss of a number of cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens) to fungus as well as a wood-eating insect. This is very disturbing as the organic methodology implemented at Sparoza means there is little we can do to prevent this. The infected trees have been felled and will be burned though this may have little effect on the fungus which is a subversive traveled. Our neighbours have also been hit with this woe. One of them spent a huge sum of money to spray his trees and still lost many of them. We will just have to replant, a much more joyous topic! A new friend from the Scandinavia branch of the Mediterrranean Garden Society shared with us some very interesting tree seeds and another gave us two strong young trees, a Brachychiton sp. and a Quercus ithaburensis. In our nursery we also have a number of young trees that we can try out on the hillside and in the garden. Another happier subject is the making of trees out of shrubs.

Curchyard Quercus coccifera (left) next to a Cupressus sempervirens

Curchyard Quercus coccifera (left) next to a Cupressus sempervirens

Quercus coccifera, the kermes oak is widespread throughout the Mediterranean and usually remains a low spreading shrub as the young shoots are extremely palatable if you are a goat. This habit is also encouraged by shallow rocky and poor soil and exposed situations, of which Sparoza is made. As a result we have wonderful thickets of Q. coccifera which never fail to produce hundreds of sweet little acorns. In the garden and outlying area some of these thickets have been raised and pruned into small trees underplanted with geophytes, annuals and small shrubs. Q. coccifera can, in its own time, become a tree but I have only come across one so far in an old churchyard on the south of Sparoza hill. Here, protected within whitewashed walls, it has become a magnificent tree whose leaves have lost their protective spines.

Pistachia lentiscus

At Sparoza we also treat some of the lentisc (Pistacia lentiscus) shrubs in this way. Lifted they can be contorted into lovely sinuous and rather Art Nouveau treelets but are also very accommodating to the shear and clipper making them a good topiary specimen. All round, P. lentiscus is one of my favourite shrubs. Its waxy pinnate leaves are evergreen, the stems of young shoots are often bright red and the female plants carry wonderful clusters of berries in winter ranging from pale pink to deep scarlet. Furthermore the whole plant is wonderfully aromatic and the berries and leaf debris make a rich compost called σκινόχωμα (σκίνος/σχίνος: lentisc, χώμα: dirt).

The wild olive (Olea europaea sbsp. oleaster) is a prolific self seeder in the garden and extended areas. Seedlings found in the terraces are quickly grubbed up but the ones on the hillside are left and put to good use. The leaves are small and round and it forms a dense shrub lending itself gallantly to topiary. We clip them into balls which give a succinct punctuation (and, when coupled with a narrow cypress, exclamation) to the otherwise delightfully rambling hillside.


3 thoughts on “Words on Trees

  1. It is very interesting to see Melianthus major flowering at the same time as the Judas trees. Here, in the south of France, the Judas tree begins to flower in late March and April, whereas Melianthus does not flower until mid summer or even later.

  2. A fascinating blog Isabel. It is interesting what you have to say about the various trees at Sparoza. Quercus coccifera makes a magnificent tree & we have a number of them locally, here on Samos, including a huge specimen in the grounds of a chapel.

    I think that most of Greece is without olives this year. Strangely we have some – enough to make some eating olives anyway – which I think is down to the intensive pruning that we have done over the past few years to help bring our new plot under control. Maybe this has shocked the olives into trying to produce every year in the short term? Normally the crop is biennial.

    I agree that “skinos” is a great plant if it’s where you want it. Like you, we have trimmed lots of ours to encourage them to be small trees. They do indeed make wonderful compost as we are discovering as we clear certain areas to plant other things and admire the quality of the soil. Here the leaves are used to flavour the olives whilst curing and to help prevent mould. I use the branches with berries in the house at Xmas.The wood from both the oak and the skinos burns very well on the fire, especially the roots, of which we have many!

    Finally, I think that a lot of your trees oozing the amber liquid have fallen victim to “borers”. A friend of ours says that if you see this on a young tree you should dig out the offending borer with a sharp knife and there is every chance that the tree will survive. Leave it and it will probably die. We haven’t tried it.

    We wish you & all at Sparoza a happy Xmas & hope to see you next year.

    Best wishes,

    PS I am so pleased that origanum sipyleum is now flourishing at Sparoza; it’s such a beautiful plant.

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