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Island Ecology

Island Ecology

by José P Ribas

The Almond Tree
Eivissa's Perfumed Snow


Ibiza Ecology

The last pure-white petals are being blown away one by one on the breeze, as if they were snowflakes.

We are almost at the end of probably the most spectacular natural event that we can enjoy every winter here, the splendid blooming of the almond tree.

For the last two months they have sensitively covered and decorated our dry fields with an intense explosion of the pure white or slightly pink petals of the almond tree rose.

These days as you take a walk in an almond tree plantation and see them all around falling down, if it wasn't because of its nice sweet aroma, the temperature and the shining sun, you would swear that you were in the middle of a snowstorm. When you look at these plantations from the distance, at the right moment, it is inevitable to compare them with the snow-white continental winter fields.

This phenomenal yearly event starts (more or less, depending on the weather conditions) with the New Year (sometimes we can see the first flowers as a Christmas present) and it reaches its peak in February's full moon. The Ibicencos say that February's full moon, or what's the same, the almond-tree-flower-full-moon are the most clear and bright nights of the year.

The ones who have been lucky enough to see it know that this is very true. The almond trees, with all the branches completely covered in flowers (the leaves will come after, as soon as the tree loses the flowers) look like soft and white clouds that reflect the moonlight of our clear and almost unpolluted winter sky.

In these conditions, it is possible to spot a person walking in the fields by the countryside at night without any artificial light, well over a kilometre away.

Because of this coincidence, the beauty of the almond tree blooming, the full moon and the extreme peace and serenity of this time of the year (this is the time of the year with less people on the Island and the nerves of the tourist season are still "far"), make of February's full moon the favourite and the most inspiring time for our poets and poetesses.

To celebrate this magnificent event, a group of local poets and writers started about twelve years ago to visit "Es Pla de Corona" (*) every February's full moon night to party, play music and to read poetry that was especially written for the occasion. Not surprisingly, the moon and the almond tree flowers are normally the most important subjects.

This group of about twenty five or thirty people at the beginning was increasing every year until reaching several hundreds in a few years, becoming one of the most important and crowded popular events of our winter nights and the most anticipated, especially for the intellectual society of Eivissa.

For the first five or six years, all the poetry written for the occasion and read by the authors at these full-moon-and-petal-parties was edited and published in a yearly book ("A la llum dels ametllers," Quaderns de Literatura, Consell Insular d'Eivissa i Formentera) by the "Conselleria de Cultura" of the Local Government.

The almond tree's been glorified by our most sensitive poets, but in my opinion there is still something more that can be said and perhaps we would all like to know a little bit more about the almond tree. Let's do it as a little homage to its graces.

"Prunus amygdalus" Stokes, "Prunus communis", "Prunus dulcis" and "Amygdalus communis"-Linné are the four scientific names for this tree, a plant of the "Rosaceous family", the same as the peach, apricot, pear, apple, cherry or the plum tree, as well as the rose tree, the blackberry or the strawberry, as some of the most representative plants of this large family.

The almond tree is the largest of them all, at least in our Islands, where it can reach up to ten metres or even more, with a thick and rough cracked trunk which can reach more then two meters around it, though the common size is five to eight metres high and a metre or less around the trunk. It is also the one that takes longest to mature its fruits, eight months, from January till August-September.

It is originally from the Middle East and Northern-African countries, where it can be found wild, but it was spread and used in most of the Mediterranean countries even before historical times.

The almond tree doesn't tolerate very low temperatures, as it blossoms in the beginning of the winter. Even here it can lose its future fruits if the temperature drops enough for us to have frost, the ice can dry and kill the flower or the new-born almond in two or three nights, so this fact limits its spread to the Mediterranean countries and more recently other areas in different Continents with similar weather conditions, such as California, USA, Viña del Mar, Chile, South-Africa, etc.

There are two different kinds of almond trees, the bitter and the sweet, each one of them, especially the sweet, with quite a few different varieties.

The bitter-almond-tree is the one we use for planting, because of its adaptability, stronger resistance and faster growing. We plant it in the autumn from a bitter almond. Two or three years later, the new plant will be removed to its defined location and engrafted with the graft of whatever variety of sweet almond tree wanted.

The bitter almonds used to be sold to the pharmaceutical industry to produce bitter-almond-oil, because of its components and also to produce a good variety of sweets, cakes and liquors.

This oil is obtained by distillation of the almond and it possesses "Amigdalina" compost of 95% of "benzaldehido" and from 2 to 4% of "cyanhidric acid," which is very poisonous (it has the classic cyanide smell) and it has to be eliminated from the oil to be used as an aliment (twenty bitter almonds, if eaten, can be enough to kill a person. In the old days, there were several formulas of mixing five to twenty bitter-almonds with food to kill foxes, wild dogs and cats Discóredes Book 1 Chapter 139). The bitter-almond-oil is known as "benzaldehido", most of us have tried it, when we eat marzipan for example.

(*) "Es Pla de Corona"

"Es Pla de Corona" is by the little village of Santa Agnés, Northwest of Eivissa. It is a flat area, almost round, nowadays all planted with almond-trees, surrounded all around by hills that form like a crown to those flat lands ("Corona" = Crown).

This was the old name for this area, before the church in honour to Santa Agnés was build in the neighbourhood. The name of "Corona" is still used by the older Ibicenco people, but to most, this area is known now as "Santa Agnés de Corona".

"Es Pla de Corona"

"Qui no hagi anat a Corona
cap any pel mes de febrer
no sap el que és cosa bona...
no sap bé el que es perd,
perqué els ametllers floreixen
pel pla de Santa Agnés...
fan un núvol rosa y blanc,
un perfum tan penetrant
que el que hi vagi el primer any
espere impacient tot l'any
que torni el proper febrer."

Maria Neus Planells i Molina, Eivissa, 1990.

"A la llum dels ametllers" (II)
Quaderns de Literatura.

Almond trees In Bloom
Picture Copyright © Gary Hardy

To be continued in two weeks.

José P Ribas