Growing Carob in Belize

Carob is actually a shrub, but usually considered to be a tree because it can grow to be fifty feet with a broad spreading canopy of dark green, glossy, leathery leaves. Although not well known in Belize, cultivation of carob has potential to be successfully grown here. The prevailing advice is: “anywhere citrus is grown, carob may be grown”. Carob (Ceratunia siliqua), is a leguminous evergreen shrub/tree which is a member of the Fabaceae (pea or legume) family. The versatile trees are grown for their pods, seeds and wood, enjoyed as a showy ornamental shade trees, or pruned to form a dense screening hedge. Wood of the tree is hard and close-grained. It is prized for turnery (objects made on a lathe), furniture and cabinet wood. As a fuel it burns slowly and creates an excellent charcoal. Carob trees are fireresistant and are sometimes planted around homes in areas where there is a high risk for fires to help protect homes and property.

Trees have pinnate leaves and numerous small red blossoms which develop in the female trees into edible oblong pods. Carob is native to the eastern Mediterranean; it is known as ‘algarrabo’ in Guatemala. It is also commonly known as “Saint John’s bread”, as carob was the “locust” which sustained Saint John the Baptist. Carob later became known as locust, or locust bean, a name which has been attributed to many leguminous trees. Carob has become known and used as a substitute for chocolate around the world.

The origin of carob dates back to at least five thousand years. It has been cultivated since ancient times in the Mediterranean region and was well-known to the early Greeks. The trees reportedly grew wild in the Levant region and continue to grow wild in unsettled areas of the Mediterranean. By the 19th century carob pods were exported to Russia and Central Europe where they were sold on the street to be chewed as “sweet meats”. Carob trees were used to reforest the slopes of the Apennines in Italy. Spanish missionaries are responsible for introducing carob to Mexico and Southern California by importing over 8,000 seedlings. By 1859 many more carob trees were distributed from seeds imported from Israel to warm climate zones of the Americas.

Carob seeds removed from the pod may be directly planted or started in pots or gardening bags. Fresh seeds germinate quickly especially if chipped and soaked in water. A well-cared-for seedling may bear fruit in six to eight years. Cuttings from fruitbearing trees may bear fruit in as few as three to four years. When planting, it is important to give trees lots of ‘elbow room’ allowing at least thirty feet in every direction around the trees. Carob trees grow easily and well in warm temperate and subtropical areas. They survive cold to 20 degrees F and heat to 122 degrees F. Trees grow in widely divergent soils and tolerate humid coastal weather and some salt. Trees do not require fertilizer and are quite pest-resistant as well. Considered to be xerophytic (drought-resistant), carob trees grow deep root systems and are dioecious, having separate male and female trees; however it is not uncommon to have both male and female characteristics occur in some carob populations. It takes at least one male tree to fertilize approximately twenty-five to thirty trees. Some commercial growers graft a male branch to a few female trees in an orchard to pollinate trees without taking up the space of a male tree. Trees are pollinated by wind and insects.

Reddish-brown carob pods come in many shapes and grow to be four inches up to a foot long; when ready for harvest each pod may contain up to fifteen seeds. During the first years, trees produce about five to ten pounds of pods; by year twelve, one hundred pounds; and following a few decades of growth, up to two-hundred fifty pounds. Full mature trees can produce up to three thousand pounds of pods in a season. Trees are known to be productive for up to one hundred years. Trees grow slowly in the first year, then are rapid growers. It takes a full year for pods to develop from green to ripeness on the tree. Unripe pods are green and extremely astringent. Harvesting should be done during a dry spell as the pods are susceptible to ferment and mold when damp. An opened ripe pod is filled with a sweet, delicious, soft, semi-translucent, pale brown pulp which is said to vaguely resemble the aroma of Limburger cheese due to the 1.3 % isobutyric acid content. Flowers and pods of the carob tree are cauliflorous; that is, they often grow directly from the limbs, trunk and branches of the female tree. Several animals eat the ripe pods and help distribute the seeds. Deer, squirrels, rats, bats and gophers especially enjoy chewing the bark and pods.

Ripe carob pods are deseeded, dried, generally in the sun or lowheat oven kilns, then ground to make carob powder, which is used as an ingredient in beverages, confections, baked goods and ice-cream. Carob powder can be substituted for cocoa in the same proportions in a recipe with an adjustment of lowering the amount of sugar as carob has natural sweetness. Carob seeds are dark brown and uniform in shape, resembling watermelon seeds. They are hard and require grinding to be processed into locust bean gum, the thickening and emulsifying agent used in salad dressing, and other foods. Seeds were once used as a size and weight measurement for gold and for sizing diamonds and other precious gemstones. One carob seed equals one carat.

Carob is highly nutritious in the pods and seeds. Seeds constitute ten to twenty percent of the pod weight. Carob is often used as an energy-rich feed for animals. Pods are relished by horses, cattle, pigs, goats and rabbits. Ground pods contain tannin which can interfere with protein absorption so should be used effectively as only about ten to twenty percent of diet as a nutritious supplement. Carob powder and syrup is naturally sweet. It is a good natural source of protein and calcium and is rich in iron, phosphorous and fiber and trace minerals. Carob has been used since ancient times as sustenance for humans and animals during times of famine. Carob also has therapeutic uses. One tablespoon of carob in a cup of liquid is said to help quell symptoms of diarrhea. A syrup is made from the sweet pods which is an effective cough and irritated throat remedy. Singers have chewed the pods to sooth their throats. Seeds have been ground, roasted and used as a coffee additive or substitute. Some claim carob has aphrodisiac properties.

Although Spain, Italy, Morocco, Portugal and Greece are the top carob producing countries, Belize and Central America have successfully grown carob trees. Trees are available in Belize at various nurseries, including All Fruit Nursery a few miles outside Belmopan off the Hummingbird Highway in Springfield. The full commercial value of carob has yet to be realized in Belize.