10 July 2016

What colour are we going to
whitewash the trees this year?

Why do Greeks whitewash the base of trees every year? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

There was a politician in Wexford who was well-loved for his verbal gaffes. One evening, it is said, there was a debate at Wexford Corporation about a proposal to whitewash the cemetery walls.

“Ah,” he intervened, “that’s all well and for yous, but what colour are you going to whitewash the walls with?”

As a regular visitor to Greece, I am often asked why so many Greeks, especially in Crete, whitewash the base of trees everywhere – in their gardens, by the beach, in the fields, on the sides of roads.

The usual explanation is that the trunks of trees are painted white with lime wash to fight off ants and insects that could damage the bark by feeding on it or by laying eggs in the tree. Besides, it looks nice, too!

But if the intention is to repel insects, and insects can fly, how can lime-washing the base of tree protect the higher parts of the tree?

Perhaps it is also done because the coating prevents weeds from gathering and growing around the base of the tree.

But the explanation I find most convincing is the white paint can also shield the young bark of sensitive trees from the sun. In winter, the south or sunnier side of a tree can heat up and crack when there is a rise in temperature that cannot be noticed on the north side of the tree. In summer too, the white colour prevents the bark from heating too much under the summer sun, and again this prevents it cracking, which can cause infections and rot.

So, whitewashing functions as a sunscreen for the trees. But it has become part and parcel of unquestioned Greek tradition, and it has been done for so long, that many people do not remember why.

Other reasons I have been given include stopping goats from eating the bark; to seal the trunk and allow it to trap more water; and because Greek roads – especially in areas with small populations – are not well lit, so painting the tree trunks white is a way to reflect light in the night.

But it is an old method of protection that brings its own problems today. There are environmental concerns about the change in soil pH as the emulsion gets washed off the tree stem and dramatically changes the neutral or acid soil in hi alkaline soil in very short period of time.

It is a tradition strongly associated with traditional Mediterranean architecture, and is a tradition that may go back to ancient and classical Greece.

At Easter time, everything gets whitewashed in Greece: the houses, the trees, the stone steps, the stone and wooden fences, indeed anything that looks like it needs being freshened up.

The substance used on the trees is a mixture of slaked lime (calcium hydroxide), chalk (whiting) and water that cures to a hard crust.

It is the very same substance that was used in the 1950s and the 1960s to whitewash my grandmother’s farmhouse in West Waterford. It is probably the same substance that was used on the house that Joe Dolan was referring to when he sang: “I’m in love with the girl who lives in the house with the whitewashed able.”

Of course, Joe Dolan was also influenced by the Greek singer Demis Roussos … but I digress.

And while the colour used in the lime-wash for trees is almost exclusively white, it is not always white for other uses, despite how we joked about that councillor in Wexford. It can also be tinted with different colours for houses, lintels and window frames, fences and doors, so not everything has to be white. It is said that at one time every Greek village had two cafés, one decorated in blue to show the proprietor’s sympathies with the conservative New Democracy, and one in green to show support for Pasok, then the main party on the left.

But, while Greek parties have divided and splintered in recent years, there has been no measurable, commensurate rise in the number of village cafés.

The white coat of lime-wash applied freshly at Easter-time each year can prevent one side of a tree heating up and cracking in the summer sunshine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)