Thursday, April 1, 2010

On a millennial Hill of Olives

Olives are common trees in many parts of the Mediterranean but wild olive woodland is not so easy to find. One such place is the Rock of Gibraltar where ancient wild olives thrive on the sunny west-facing limestone slopes. There is one particular spot where the olives form a dense woodland which is blanketed by a lush understorey of Acanthus.

Strange plants grow in the shady understorey, none moreso than the Butcher's Broom (below)

No, this is not a trick photograph. The fruit of the Butcher's Broom is not growing from the centre of a leaf! This is actually a flattened stem adapted for trapping sunlight deep in the undergrowth of the forest

The Osyris is a shrub that is especially abundant in the olive woodland. Its fruit grows "normally" from the branches of the shrub, with bright colour to attract bird dispersers.

Beautiful Spanish Festoons seek the sunlight between the trees

Dwarf Fan Palms, the only species to grow wild in Europe, are looking splendid thanks to protection - no palm hearts are cut off from these plants!

Deep in this wood is a cave. It had never been excavated until we started there over ten years ago. People were living here 14 thousand years ago, hunting and gathering in an environment with Aleppo Pines, slightly drier than today. Between 4.2 and 3.5 thousand years ago, Copper and Bronze Age people came into the cave and they buried their dead here. Charcoal remains allowed us to date these people and they also allowed us to identify what plants were growing outside the cave then. And, just like now, the wild olive was the dominant tree! A lot later, in the 14th Century AD a muslim goatherd came here, brought sardines from the sea 300 metres below and ate them while tending his animals!

Part of our ancient olive wood with North Africa, across the Strait of Gibraltar, in the background

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