Wandering out of the village for a break from writing the other day, I came across a farmer tending his olive trees. When he saw me he stopped work and leaned on his hoe.
‘Another half hour should see me done’ he said, inviting me to stop and chat for a moment.
‘Oh what are you doing?’ I accepted his invite and this led to a very interesting conversation about his olive trees.
I love the olive trees that grow abundantly in the countryside around the village, and all over Greece. The oldest one in Greece is located on the island of Crete, apparently, and is one of seven trees in the Mediterranean believed to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old. The farmer didn’t know that, but his knowledge on his own olive trees was vast.
He told me that olive trees thrive best when neglected – let them be, he told me, and they will still produce. The only thing he did was to ensure a supply of water during the long hot summers. Wild olives, he said, only produce fruit every three or four years but their roots are strong and resistant to fungi and disease. The cultivated trees are the opposite – the yields are good but the roots are less hardy.
‘It’s a pity you cannot have the best of both worlds,’ I said.
‘Aha!’ he replied, and went on to explain how he grafts the branches of a domestic tree onto the roots of a wild one.
‘The whole point of grafting is that each part of the grafted tree keeps its original character,’ he said.
‘Can you tell me how you do it?’ I was curious. His face lit up.
‘Come see,’ He said, and he led me to a branch on a nearby tree with cardboard bound around it and secured with elastic bands. ‘For the goats,’ he explained as he took off the cardboard coat, and there underneath the severed limb was exposed. The bark had been spilt vertically in five places and peeled back, and into these clefts young shoots had been wedged.
He showed me how he prepared the shoots from the domestic tree, stripping off the bark and shaping it with a knife. ‘You cut off the outer bark of the branch you are grafting so the soft bark of that touches the soft bark to the parent tree, and that way it will take.’
The new shoots were arranged perimetrically around the host branch, and the whole lot was bound around with green tape. The exposed top surface of the branch on the host tree was sealed with what looked like plastic.
‘It’s wax,’ he enlightened me. ‘I heat it up in a little hot water and then smear it on like butter. It keeps the insects out and protects the grafts from drying out. He began to chuckle to himself.
‘For fun and to keep my wife amused, in my back garden I have an orange tree,’ he said. ’Onto this, some years ago, I grafted a mandarin branch and a lemon branch, and now she can take all her fruits from the one tree.’
‘Oh how lovely,’ I exclaimed. ‘I bet that looks pretty.’
He took up his hoe again and this told me he was back to work, clearing the weeds and moving the stones.
My walk took me through several olive groves, and I viewed the trees with a new-found appreciation.