Rip Van Winkle and the Carob Tree

carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua)

carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua)

If you do much walking along the streets of our city, you may have inhaled a powerful bleachlike odor emanating from a tree. It’s an awfully large tree to keep such a low profile, but few people could identify it even if they were standing directly under its branches. It can grow to 50 feet tall, 50 feet wide, and live for more than 500 years.
I’m talking about the carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua). The carob has pinnate leaves, which means that, like most other legumes – from peas to locust trees – two rows of leaflets are arranged along the leaf stem. Carob leaves are shiny, and new leaf growth is reddish in color.
One reason the carob is not better-known is its undistinguished flowers, which are dull yellow or red panicles that, produced this time of year, go without notice – except for the males, which are strongly redolent of chlorine bleach.
The carob is unusual among plants in being unpredictable as to its complement of flowers. Most plants have perfect flowers, meaning that both male and female reproductive organs are found on the same flower. This is true for apples, peaches, roses, begonias, daisies, irises, orchids, snapdragons, and probably 95 percent of all flowering plants.
Some plants, however, have separate male and female flowers. Grasses – corn, wheat, oats, rice, bamboo – have separate flowers (such as male tassels and female silks on corn) on the same plant. Other plants – such as holly, ginkgo, date palm, pistachio and kiwi – are more like Homo sapiens, at least insofar as they have separate male and female individuals within the species.
The carob is usually found as a male or female tree, but occasionally both male and female flowers live amicably upon a single specimen. If you have a carob that doesn’t produce fruit (pods), either you have a male tree or you have an isolated female, too far away from a male to be pollinated.
If you should decide to get a carob, locate a grafted, hermaphroditic variety, since it will produce pods on its own. The pods, or more precisely the pulp within the pods, make a sweet snack, and fit well with any trail mix.
Carob is used as a substitute for chocolate in candy bars found in health food stores. In the Middle East, carob pods have been used as livestock feed since biblical times.
The Talmud relates the story of a youth who came upon an old man planting a carob seed by the side of a road. The youth scoffed at the old man for planting the seed, since he would not live to enjoy the carob’s shade or fruit.
The old man merely said, “I am not planting for myself. I have eaten fruit from carob trees that other men have planted. Years from now, those who pass this way and eat of this tree will be grateful to me for planting it.”
The youth lay down and went to sleep. Seventy years later, he awoke to find the carob tree fully grown and covered with fruit. He had grown old and was a stranger to everyone around him.
It is known that this story of the carob was in the mind of Washington Irving when he wrote the legend of Rip Van Winkle.
The genus name of the carob, Ceratonia, is close to the word carat, which comes from Arabic and Greek words for “small weight.” A carat, which is the standard unit of weight for precious stones, originally corresponded to the weight of a single carob bean or seed.
Once they have been in the ground for two or three years, carobs do not require irrigation, as long as they get 10 inches of winter rain (four inches less than the Los Angeles average). Carobs produce prolifically on dry slopes in Spain, Portugal and Israel, and on the islands of Cyprus and Malta. It is not unusual for a single, mature tree to produce over a thousand pounds of fruit.
Chris Patterson of Burbank writes: “We planted a coral tree 7 years ago whose roots are surfacing. I understand that, when planting, we should have vertically sunk 4-inch-diameter, perforated PVC pipe 4 feet deep in the ground to encourage deep rooting. We could have filled the pipe with rocks, topped it with a small grate, and allowed water to soak through it. Can we still do this and, at this late stage, develop deep roots?”
I’ve got bad news and good news. The bad news is that you cannot encourage deep roots by sinking pipe in at this time. The good news is that you need not regret failure to follow this procedure at planting because watering through long vertical pipe has yet to prove itself as a deterrent to the development of surface roots.
Initially, perhaps, you won’t have as many surface roots but eventually they will develop. Sub-surface irrigation makes sense for droughty areas, where regular irrigation is impossible and, by soaking to a four-foot depth, water can be stored in the soil for long periods of time.
Tip: Three micronutrients – iron, zinc and manganese – are especially important to maintain green color and vigor in lawns. Make sure that your lawn fertilizer contains these three elements.

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