Growing Old Gracefully


North Eastern Spain, home to olive trees so old they have been known as ‘millennium-old’ for generations. A group of scientists keen for more precise information have tested their age in the Catalan region of Montsià. Analysis results indicate the oldest is thought to be around 627 years old making it one of the oldest living olive trees recorded in Europe.

Due to the large size of the olive trees in the Mediterranean region, many experts have claimed that they are millennia old but "there had never been a scientific study to verify this," until now explained ecologist Bernat Claramunt from the Centre for Ecological Research and Forestry Applications (CREAF). Claramunt stated that "this is one of the oldest specimens recorded in the Mediterranean ecosystem and on the European Continent." Lead by Jordi Martínez-Vilalta, the CREAF researchers employed classic dendrochronology methods based on the analysis of growth rings in the tree trunks.

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The scientists analysed 14 olive trees (Olea europea) from the coastal region of Montsià in Catalonia. As Claramunt explains, "we use a technique that allows for the extraction of a small cylindrical piece of the trunk which goes from the bark to the core of the tree. This sample contains the life history of the tree." They also studied entire sections of the trunk that had been previously carved out. Obtaining results from trunks is not easy. Claramunt warns that "there are times when the rings are hardly visible or they do not follow a known time pattern. The olive tree could also be too twisted."

The data from this study can also be useful when reconstructing the climatic conditions of the last few centuries. "As well as dating these olive trees, we have shown that this type of tree can be used for dendrochronological analysis," outlines the expert. The study results have been published in the Dendrochronologia journal.

The olive trees that captivated the famous Spanish poet Antonio Machado come from a variety cultivated in Palestine 6,000 years ago. The species spread west throughout the Mediterranean thanks to the Phoenicians, the Etruscans, the Greeks and the Romans. It is believed  cultivation in the Iberian Peninsula started some 4,000 years ago.
There are at least 17 tree species in the world that can live longer than one thousand years and nearly all of them are conifers.
"In Europe there are many trees that are considered to be one thousand years old but nobody has calculated their age," explains Claramunt. The Regional Government of Catalonia has recently changed the name of the 'millennium-old' olive trees to 'monumental trees'.

Regardless of age or how they’re dated we’re sure you’ll agree a gnarled old olive tree is a tree of immense beauty and character.

Source: this article is based on material supplied by Plataforma SINC & CREAF