Puglia’s olive trees under attack from disease

Though it’s not strictly a tourism story, it’s still a sad one for Puglia, and particularly the Salento Peninsula around Lecce. A bacteria has been destroying olives trees, many of them 100 years old or even older. And the European Union is trying to help, La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno reports.

The importance of this threat was highlighted at a recent meeting of the Agriculture Committee of the European Parliament, held in Lecce. Scientists and farmers say the threat has abated somewhat lately with the cold winter weather, but fear another devastating outbreak when the weather warms in the early spring.

The European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization first issued a “Special Alert” in October 2013, noting the first reports of the bacteria, Xylella fastidiosa, in the region. The organization issued the following bulletin:

“Following the reporting of an extensive leaf scorch and dieback of olive trees, spreading rapidly in the area of Salento (Puglia region), the Regional Plant Protection Service promptly initiated investigations to identify the possible causal agent. These surveys were carried out in collaboration with experts from the University of Bari and the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR). The systematic screening of samples taken from symptomatic olive trees (many of them were a century old), revealed the presence of extensive brown discoloration of the vascular system. Portions of xylem tissue taken from symptomatic olive trees were subjected to mycological analysis by isolation on different growing media. Fungal colonies were obtained and identified by morphological and molecular tests…The analysis was extended to almond and oleander plants which were growing in the vicinity of affected olive trees and showing symptoms of leaf scorch. The results were also positive.”

Where this becomes a tourism story is the lure of Puglia’s olives, olive oil and olive trees to visitors. Puglia’s olive oil is highly regarded throughout the world and is major contributor to the region’s economy. The olive’s role in the Mediterranean diet is well documented, and is a major player in Puglia’s culinary tourism industry.

But there’s more: Puglia’s ancient olive trees are attractions in themselves, as natural works of art. During one of our visits, we received as a gift a large “coffee-table” book titled “Segreti Scolpiti: Ulivi di Puglia” (“Secrets Carved: Olive Trees of Puglia”) by Luca De Napoli, featuring close-up photographs of olive tree trunks and branches depicted as art. Their shapes and contours are fascinating to look at. “The olive tree dominates the Apulian landscape, it characterizes the place, becoming an icon,” Pietro Marino writes in his foreword. “Without a doubt, since mythical times, the tree has been read anthropomorphically, as a paraphrase of man and his trials.” So, any threat to these treasures can affect Puglia, and its tourism industry, in myriad ways.

The European Union has pledged to help, in particular by committing to finance 50 percent of all expenses incurred in to eradicate the disease. We hope the efforts to protect the olive trees succeed. We’ll know when spring arrives.

Photo courtesy of European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization

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