The Value of Old Olive Trees
Puglia’s gnarled old olive trees can be more than a thousand years old. For this reason, they are protected as cultural heritage.
Our house in Italy includes a piece of land with 23 olive trees ranging in age between 30 and 600 years, and when we first saw the property, the estate agent pointed to one of the trees, and sighed:
– In the north of Italy, a healthy tree like that one would fetch a price exceeding the total price we ask for the house and il terreno. And they don’t even buy it for the oil.
An olive tree is at its best, when it is between 400-800 years old. Older trees become hollow, they twist and turn and deteriorate until they are hardly carrying any fruit. But still it is prohibited to cut them down. In Puglia, olive trees are protected as local patrimony, and you have to obtain permission, before they are felled, which is rarely granted. The authorities won’t even allow people to build on their own land, if the project entails the sacrifice of olive trees.
From what I have heard from the estate agent and others, olive trees have been protected since the Second World War, when the pugliesi were forced to fell trees for firing wood. This drastically changed the landscape, which had been cultivated for thousands of years, and as it takes generations to grow a new olive tree, the damage could not be undone in a lifetime or two. A ban on killing olive trees was therefore instituted.
Olive tree laws are generally respected, but some farmers find it unfair that they have to maintain groves of unprofitable trees.
They cannot get a proper return on their soil, if it is filled with gnarled, dried out trunks, which go on sprouting branches of silvery green leaves for ages after their fruit bearing days are definitely over. In fact the old tree cost the farmer money, as they still have to be pruned at regular intervals. This may explain why very old, decorative trees are sometimes uprooted in the dark of night and trucked north, where they are sold at exorbitant prices to Settentrionale, who want the prestige of an old olive tree in their private gardens.
Meanwhile south Italian farmers can go to the police and complain that their trees have been stolen, before they go home and start cultivating new crop.