Home & Garden Columns

Don’t Lose Your Head for St. John’s Bread

By Ron Sullivan, Special to the Planet
Tuesday November 14, 2006

Before it got drafted to be an allegedly “heathier” substitute for chocolate, carob was a dietary staple of poor folks and a treat even for the wealthy. Ceratonia siliqua is a handsome, tough, warm-climate tree that grows long, thick, flat brown pods to cradle its seeds.  

These pods are sweet, nutritious (at least as tree pods go) and contain gummy stuff that gets used in all sorts of non-food things like glue and ink and leather and fabric sizing, as well as for “stabilizers” in foods as disparate as ice cream, mustard, and salami. Look for “locust gum” in the ingredients list.  

(May I insert here a short rant about the misuse, fast becoming normal, of the word “healthy” when what’s meant is “healthful” or “nutritious”? By the time most of us, especially humans, actually eat an item, chances are it’s far from healthy. In fact, vis-à-vis human food, one hopes it’s actually dead.) 

Speaking of salami or anyway of Salome: One of the vernacular names for carob is “St. John’s bread,” because it’s thought to be the locust part of the “locusts and honey” diet that John the Baptist lived on in the desert. 

Any tree with pinnately divided leaves and long seedpods might get called “locust”—the Robinia and Gleditsia locust trees are relatives but not siblings—but carob is evidently the first owner of the name.  

Different sources transmit different theories about whether the New Testament means the tree pod or the grasshopper, and evidently the Greek is as ambiguous as the English versions. Carob-dipped grasshoppers? Perhaps we could be ecumenical about it and have chocolate-covered ants instead. 

I myself would dance the hoochie-koochie for the avenger who would bring me the head (platter optional) of the malefactor who so badly abused the tree in the photo. 

If someone actually paid for that vandalism, someone get royally ripped off and they’ve set themselves up for damage and lawsuits in the future when the tree becomes a hazard.  

I’d heap more even shame upon the ingrates because carob’s such a good tree for urban spots here. It’s drought-tolerant and stands up to the sort of intense heat it gets in parking lots and other paved areas. It’s not deciduous, but keeps its green, clean, cheerful look even at summer’s end, when everything else is all dusty and exhausted.  

You can see streetside rows of good-sized mature carobs along a couple of the main drags in Livermore and in the South Bay. There’s a newish planting of them in the financial district in San Francisco, and I do wonder how they’ll fare in the shade of those tall buildings around them. They’d likely get a noontime furnace blast of sun in some seasons at least, and they’re better suited to endure that than many trees are.  

I’ve heard that carob is invasive in southern California, especially on disturbed ground and along watercourses, so I’d advise against planting it here if your site is near wildlands.  

If you have a carob or know someone who’ll let you pick its fruit, have at it. People chew on the pods just as they are—think of it as sweet vegetable jerky—and in Lebanon they press the pods for sweet dibess kharroob, which looks rather like molasses and is good on its own, in tahini, or for dipping pita.  

It would take serious grinding equipment, I’d think, to get carob flour from the pods. If you manage it—or just go buy some—it’s good with regular flour for bread or pancakes; I’ve never tried this but I bet it would combine well with buckwheat flour. Europeans have used the roasted, ground seeds in and instead of coffee: breakfast! Just add eggs, but don’t feed carob to your chickens—I don’t know why, but it’s supposed to be bad for them though it’s good for other livestock.  

It’s a handy tree to have; certainly we should think about planting some on the streets in advance of the apocalypse of your choice, so we can feed ourselves when the freeways and railroads have all gone to rubble. I’d still prefer to like it on its own merits, and not as a fake Hershey bar.  


Photograph by Ron Sullivan.  

A very badly pruned carob tree behind a Telegraph Avenue burger place.