Carob, St. John’s Bread, Locust Tree

Ceratonia siliqua L.

The English name carob appears to derive from the Arabic kharroub, or kharnoub. As for the scientific name Ceratonia siliqua, both words incidentally mean pod. The other English name for carob, St. John’s beard, came from the Christian belief that carob was the Prophet John the Baptist’s food in the wilderness.

Carob is an evergreen tree capable of growing to about ten metres in height. It has a thick trunk with greyish-brown bark. The young branches are reddish-brown. The leaves are feathery and alternately arranged on the branches. The flowers form in catkin-like racemes either in the axils of the leaves, the woody stems, or even the trunk. The female flowers have no petals and contain plenty of nectar. As for the seeds, they are round with a hard, smooth casing. The seeds and fruit contain what is called ‘carob honey’, which is sweet in taste. The flowers bloom in autumn, and one year after setting, the elongated, hard fruit reaches maturity.

Carob is dioecious, though sometimes it can be monoecious, so a tree can be one of three possible genders: male, female, or a tree bearing both male and female flowers at the same time. The male flowers are red and emit a foul odour. The female flowers are green with ovaries and no clear calyx or corolla.

Carob is widespread in northern Palestine, especially in mountainous areas. It is native to the Mediterranean basin, although some evidence suggests that it originated in Iran. As for its usage, both humans and animals eat its mature brown pods. The fruit can also be ground and boiled. When this mixture cools, it becomes gelatinous and is called khabeesa. When still green, the pods can be minced, juiced, and then boiled with milk to make a food called imkeeka. Carob molasses and a carob drink are also made from the mature brown pods.

It is claimed that carob has medicinal significance. Avicenna gives this prescription: If you rub warts very hard with the green unripe pod, you will certainly get rid of them.

The carat system, used to measure the purity of diamond and gold, is associated with the carob. The carat is also used as a unit of measure for land. The word carat derives from the Italian carato, itself derived from the Arabic qirat, which came from the Greek keration, the word for carob. The weight of the carob seed was established as a standard because the seed is resistant to decay, and all seeds were thought to have the same weight. Whether we measure gold or land, 24 carats are equal to 100 percent of what is being measured. Therefore, gold rated as 21-carat means that it is 21 out of 24 parts (or carats) gold. When a person owns 4 carats of a piece of land, that means they own 4 out of 24 parts or carats of that land. Related to this was the old practice of putting carob seeds in clay bowls, and placing the bowls in holes in the ground to mark land boundaries, then referring to these bowls whenever boundaries were disputed.

Among the prevalent beliefs is that evil spirits inhabit carob trees, so people may sit and rest in their shade, but not sleep there, especially at night.

Carob is not mentioned much in Palestinian folk sayings. However, one saying exists that compares the difficulty the elderly face when trying to eat the carob’s hard fruit with the difficulty of dealing with certain human beings:

‘He’s like the carob fruit. He can be neither bitten nor chewed.’


Source: A Garden Among the Hills: The Floral Heritage of Palestine. © The Palestinian Museum 2019