Sunday, August 29, 2010

Russian Olives

There are no olives in Russia. That is, olive trees do not grow there, or anywhere else in the old USSR. Even in Crimea, it gets too cold in the short but biting winter. There are Russian olive trees though (Elaeagnus angustifolia) Native trees of Central Asia, they were cultivated later in Russia, since the 18th century in Europe, and soon after in the US, where they integrated all too well, and are now considered invasive. The picture above is from the southern US. Some people seem to eat the fruit, vaguely similar to olives, rather sweet but dry and chewy.

Here in Khorezm, the Russian olive is an important part of the native tugai forest, originally covering much of the Amu Darya valley, and parts of the delta. Talking to old people in Ashirmat, close to the desert edge, a picture started to form of a fragmented landscape, with patches of tugai forest, spots of desert land, saline and freshwater lakes and wetlands, and small irrigated fields, framed by the natural mosaic.

Russian olive featured in their narratives, as one of the very few species that apparently made up the woodlands. Lakes and wetlands were used for fishing and hunting -wild boar, ducks- but the woods were rather useless, the trees being too small for timber, the wetlands being much richer in animal life. Nobody mentioned the fruits of the Russian olive, the finegrained wood, used elsewhere for fine carving, or the honey from its flowers.

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