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Monday, March 12, 2007

The Road Back To Tradition Begins With A Graft

I was at the farm the other day with Francesco and his brother Salvatore. They were excited about the work two other brothers were doing, grafting olive trees. The goal of the grafting was to turn their carolea olive plants back to Sicily’s native verdese variety, by means of what looks like a brutal process, if you’re a tree.

To my very untrained eye, a tree graft looks like the equivalent of getting your legs chopped off above the knee, then having appendages the size of Barbie doll legs stuck in the stumps and being bandaged up by a grinning doctor who walks away five minutes later, saying you’ll be fine.

In this case, the grafters arrived with a picnic basket worth of olive tree branches, some seriously sharp knives called innestos, a chain saw, a roll of tape and a pack of paper and plastic bags Francesco got from the local baker, and worked their way across the grove, grafting as they went.

Most trees in the grove are a good 12 feet tall with big, beautiful, leaf-covered branches; I’ve taken to using one of them on the top of my hill as an office. The Brothers Graft clearly didn’t share my sentimental attachment to the trees. With two quick cuts of the chainsaw, one of them reduced a tree to a waist-height Y-shaped stump.

A bit shocked and amazed that the leafless, branchless stump could go on living, I asked Francesco how they survive.

“I’d survive,” he deadpanned.

“You’re a tough cookie, my friend,” I replied.

“We’re changing them from carolea plants by grafting verdese shoots,” he continued, not missing a beat.

I ask why they don’t just remove the old trees and plant new verdese plants.

“Buying a verdese plant is outrageously expensive,” he said. “Plus, the (existing) plant is already comfortable with the weather, the soil and all of the microclimatic conditions.”

“So what grows will be 100 percent verdese?”

“Yeah. It’s not a hybrid; it changes the whole identity of the tree.”

If all goes well, three years from now, verdese olives will be growing from these trees.

We walk over and take a closer look. After the limbs are felled, each brother takes a branch above the Y, and using the innestos, they quickly create slots (about two or three per branch of the Y) that they tap the new verdese shoots into. They tightly wrap the top of the stump with packing tape, coat the top with some plastic-y tree protector, cover with a plastic bag to create a greenhouse effect, then the bakery’s paper bags to keep the sun from damaging the tender shoots and move to the next tree.

Somehow, this reminds me of an instant sex change without the estrogen tablets.

“Ah,” said Francesco’s brother Sal, “but these babies will be prettier.”

This is Joe Ray reporting from the Motherland - with special thanks to Francesco for the photos.

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