Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

Near or Far: November-December 2016

by Megan Frank on November 14, 2016

nearfarnd16

Location: Bovara, a village nestled in the olive groves on the slopes near Trevi, Italy.

Name: Sant’ Emiliano (that’s the name of this individual tree—it’s a thing, in Umbria)

Genus/species: Olea europaea

Common name: Olive tree

Age: 1,000 years (Or 700 years, or 1,700 years. Or something)

Submitted by: Reynolds Kelly

Reynolds says: Umbria in Autumn is as beautiful and peaceful a place as you will find anywhere in Europe. Lacking the high-wattage tourist appeal of nearby Tuscany, Umbria busies itself harvesting grapes (in August and September) and olives (in October), and having homey local festivals celebrating the local sausage, or local truffles—even the humble local celery.

Driving through a landscape filled with beautiful vineyards and cascading olive groves never gets old, but those olive trees themselves? They do. Umbria’s oldest olive tree, Sant’ Emiliano, is said to be 1,000 years old, and continues to produce a healthy crop of olives year after decade after century. It’s a little odd for a tree to have a name. Here in the Umbria Valley, Saint Emiliano was an Armenian monk who served as bishop in Trevi in the 4th century, during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. The legend goes that Emiliano was tied to an olive sapling and beheaded, and that sapling became the tree that bears his name. That’s a conventionally gruesome martyrdom story, and if it is to be believed it would make the tree about 1,700 years old. Other accounts place the tree at 1,000 years old (a suspiciously round number) or 700 years old. I couldn’t find any account of a core being taken to verify the stories, but my first-hand report is that this is one very old tree.

Surrounded by much younger siblings (or cousins, or great-great-grandtrees) it’s easy to see how much older is our friend Sant’ Emiliano than its brethren. Signposts help you find it among thousands of acres of trees, and a stone walkway and rustic fence provide a dignified setting for this eminent geezer of the groves. No matter how old the tree really is—and may it keep growing, that we should never learn—the peaceful setting in groves of trees that have turned out fine olive oil for centuries is a fitting monument to the modest industry that is Umbrian olive oil.

If you visit Umbria and our friend Sant’ Emiliano, do stop at the bottom of the hill at the local oil cooperative. If you have time, stay for lunch Umbrian style. If not, buy as many bottles of the cloudy green oil as you can carry. You’ll thank me.

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