Ceratonia siliqua
Carob (Ceratonia siliqua) (PD)

Carob - Botany And History

The carob tree is now a largely unknown but once highly popular species of evergreen shrubs belonging to the legume family (Fabaceae) that grew in prolific throughout a large part of the world. The carob tree, also known as Saint John's-bread, still grows throughout much of Southern Europe, some areas in North Africa, a large area of the Mediterranean, and in several areas across the Levant until well into the Middle-East and Western Asia. There are even some accounts of carob trees having been found in the Far East, albeit in less pronounced numbers. The carob tree has been employed since ancient times as a source of food and as a medicinal plant, although it has been used for other uses, fuel, and a means to systemize trade and barter being among its varied uses. The carob tree is a slow-growing, long-lived shrub that grows to a very large size, with some species growing up to a maximum of fifty feet in length.

The plant possesses a thick, broad, and slightly spherical crown of pinnate, broad, dark green semi-glossy to matte leaves of a leathery texture supported by a large thick trunk and thick, sturdy branches possessed with rough, uneven, dark-brown bark. It is also highly noticeable for its small inflorescence which tend to be uniquely arranged in a somewhat spiral axis upon old, leaf-free branches, and even alongside the length of the trunk. The flowers themselves resemble catkins, and are unique in that while they are possessed of a somewhat quaint, vanilla to jade-green hued racemes, the whole tree itself smells somewhat like expelled sperm during the height of its flowering season in autumn. Carob trees and notoriously hardy, and are known for being drought and frost-resistant, as well as for being able to flourish even in unforgiving conditions, often in soil qualities that are otherwise too poor for any other tree of its size and girth to typically grow. [1]

Belonging to the legume family, the carob tree also possesses moderately-sized pea-pod like fruits that hang from throughout the trees branches, initially pale-green in hue but that darkens considerably to a dark brown to almost black colouration upon maturity, and that come in a variety of shapes and sizes, although they tend to be somewhat curved or elongated. The pods are in themselves edible, although it is the seeds that are encased in them which are harvested and eaten, or otherwise employed medicinally or practically. Nowadays, the carob tree is only rarely used for sustenance, and the practical and medicinal uses of the seeds have all but gone obsolete, although in ancient times, the carob became an integral part of human diets, employed most often as a famine food, and sometimes even as regular fare. Because of its long-standing use and its wide range of accessibility, several cultures throughout the world have employed carob trees for a variety of purposes, its usefulness reflected in the tales, traditions, and folklore of the area. Nowadays, carob 'beans' are rarely employed as a foodstuff unlike in the past, but there is a growing revival in the interest of its usage and consumption. Carob pods are now primarily harvested as a food substitute, while its medicinal and therapeutic uses are only occasionally taken advantage of. Carob trees have a long standing reputation for being very slow-growing, with folkloric references in several cultures (some predominantly Hasidic) stating that it takes some 'seventy years' for the tree to bear fruit - something of an exaggeration which has become a saying akin to 'sowing for future generations'. [2]

Carob - Herbal Uses

The carob tree has had a long history of use throughout much of the world, although it was primarily employed by the peoples of the Mediterranean and the Middle East as a source of fuel, a building material, and (most importantly) as a foodstuff. The seeds of the carob plant which are harvested from its mature pods are the most predominantly employed part of the plant, and have been used for a variety of purposes since ancient times. The seeds are edible, and are reputed to be nutritionally dense, and contain a high concentration of sugar which makes the carob a tad palatable, and makes it an excellent snack food or famine food, although prolonged and unvaried intake can soon render the seeds bland and unappetising. Carob seeds are notable for being a tad similar in flavour to cacao seeds, which has resulted in its usage as an alternative to cacao and, subsequently, chocolate, although in all respects, a deeper scrutiny of carob's flavour profile renders it unique unto itself, with its 'chocolate-like' flavour only resulting from mere comparison to a more familiar (for the modern palate) flavour, than for any true similarity to the aforementioned. Carob seeds are often employed as a primary ingredient in chocolate-flavoured dog treats, as the lack of theobromine in the seeds allow it to be safe for canine consumption. [3] Darkly roasted and rough to finely ground seeds can even be employed as a caffeine-free alternative to coffee. [4]

Carob seeds possess a pulp which contains the highest concentrations of saccharine substance in the plant, this being able to keep well, and was (prior to the advent of modern techniques of preservation) sundried along with the seeds if not eaten in its raw state, the dried substance then stored or ground into powder and mixed into beverages and foodstuffs, or otherwise employed medicinally, or used as-is - a practice which has remained, albeit in lesser occurrences, to this day. [5] Prior to the discovery of sweet beets and sugarcane, carob was one of the primary sources of sugar for ancient peoples, with the extraction of its saccharine contents via a slow decoction dating as far back as the time of the Ancient Egyptians and subsisting until well into the latter part of the 1500s.

The seeds themselves are edible, and are often roasted and ground into a fine flour for use in making breads and sundry other foodstuffs. When harvested in its immature state, the seeds can be eaten raw. Mature seeds can be roasted much like chestnuts or cacao seeds and consumed as is, or otherwise partaken of raw [6] - the latter practice being somewhat common fare for Hebrew ascetics and hermits during the post-Mosaic period until well into the time that Jerusalem fell under the yoke of the Roman Empire. It was strongly associated with two prominent Biblical figures (and a number of less well-known, but equally notable Islamic and Judaic figures), namely John the Beloved, and John the Baptist, both of whom have been known to subsist solely on the seeds and pulp of the tree for prolonged periods of time, giving rise to the moniker of St John's-bread. Some Biblical scholars and historians have attested that the seeds of the carob tree were actually the fabled 'locusts' that John the Baptist reputedly relied on for sustenance in his years in the wilderness, the carob being strongly similar in appearance to the locust tree (genera Gleditsia). Another, perhaps more plausible explanation for its association as John the Baptist's main fare is because the pods themselves somehow resemble mature locusts when strewn upon the ground. The term came from the old Greek word akris, which was used to refer to the carob pods, but then later became corrupted during the translation (in much the same vein as the 'Sea of Reeds' which was later corrupted into the now notorious 'Red Sea').

Nearly all of the areal parts of the carob plant may be employed medicinally, although its pods, seeds, bark, and (rarely) the flowers of the plant are the most commonly employed. Its pods and seeds, being the most popular of its constituent parts, are used medicinally to treat a variety of digestive disorders, and are known for being an excellent remedy for indigestion, diarrhoea, dysentery, bloating, heartburn and colic. [7] Flour made from the seeds of the carob plant make for an excellent alternative to flours that contain gluten, and are perfect for individuals who suffer from coeliac disease. Being nutritionally dense, carob seed flour readily corrects most deficiencies found in the body, while tonifying it at the same time to help improve the body's innate capacity to absorb and synthesise nutrients. It has even been noted that a regular moderate intake of carob seeds, or carob flour produced from the seeds or pods not only help individuals who suffer from coeliac disease obtain the correct amounts of trace nutrients that they need but often miss out on, but that it can also be helpful for individuals who suffer from obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. Its nutritive capacity was employed strongly during ancient times for both the benefit of humans and animals, as it functioned not only as a foodstuff for people, but animal feed as well. Carob flour derived from either the pods or seeds have been shown to significantly lower cholesterol levels, as well as improve overall blood lipid profiles and blood sugar stability in patients who suffer from diabetes. Because carob seeds and pods contain high amounts of tannins, they also help to increase the body's metabolism. Coupled with its nutritional density and its somewhat filling nature (being high in readily bioavailable plant protein), it makes for a perfect alternative to cereals and rice, especially for individuals who are keen on losing a few pounds without compromising their nutrition. [8]

Partaking of carob as a foodstuff also provides the body with essential minerals and amino-acids that are otherwise only found in trace amounts in other foods. Carob seeds, and the suspension of finely ground carob powder in water makes for an excellent alternative to animal-based milk. Carob seeds and pods contain significantly high amounts of readily bioavailable phosphorus and calcium, and are among the best choices for calcium supplementation available to vegans and vegetarians. [9]

The seed pods, when decocted also act as an excellent antipyretic, diaphoretic, and expectorant. Both the pods and seeds are guaranteed remedies for diarrhoea and dysentery in infants, and is famed for its efficiency (something which even modern remedies are not on par with), and for its wondrous capacity to elicit near-miraculous recovery in very severe cases, with very marked improvement on weight-gain and overall health in the long-run. Aside from its internal and edible uses, the ground seedpods can also be applied topically, often employed as a facial masque or as a poultice-cum-plaster that is said to help lessen acne breakouts, improve the overall texture and elasticity of skin, enhance skin vibrancy, and treat a number of fungal and bacterial skin infections. [10]

The seeds are also a source of an edible gum that can be used as a substitute for gum tragacanth and as a near-equally nutritious substitute for eggs. This gum can also be used as a thickening agent, a stabiliser, an adhesive, and as a quick alternative to cornstarch. Like many other protein-rich seeds, carob seeds also extrude an oil, referred to as algarroba, and long employed since ancient times for both medicinal and culinary purposes, and which has been extruded since time immemorial through the use of cold-pressing methods. While not as popular today as it was in the past, carob oil is an excellent cooking oil with a relatively high smoking point, although it does tend to have a somewhat off taste. It possesses some degree of antimicrobial and antibacterial properties, and may be employed as a carrier oil for essential oils, or as a massage oil in its own right. [11]

The bark of the carob tree is also employed medicinally, albeit its usage is rare, and only commonly found or heard of in places where carob trees thrive in prolific number. The bark is often stripped and used in either fresh or dry form, generally decocted and drunk as a remedy for diarrhoea, indigestion, and dyspepsia. When decocted for prolonged periods of time, the subsequent decoction can be employed as a dye, (referred to professionally as algarobbin), and imparts a light brown to almost dun-like hue to fabrics and textiles. [12] The wood of the mature tree itself has been employed as a means of fuel, and as prime material for the creation of decorative items. Naturally straight or semi-straight branches have been used and carved into walking sticks and staves since time-immemorial, and the wood is highly prized for furniture making and marquetry, chiefly due to its highly vibrant reddish-hue.

The flowers of the carob itself are even employed (albeit rarely) for medicinal purposes - a light infusion being partaken of as a remedy for chills and fever. It is worth noting that the male flowers (or some sources say, both the male and female flowers) of the plant exude a slight odour not unlike the scent of semen. In spite of this, the essential oil extracted from the flowers via steam distillation have been employed in perfumery since the latter part of the 1700s, usually mixed with other essences to create low, musky, pungent notes. Its employment however is oftentimes few and far flung, with perfumes that contain the essential oil of carob being rare, if not pricey. There is yet to be ascribed medicinal or therapeutic usage for its essential oil, although since it is employed in a like manner to musk, it may possess some degree of aphrodisiacal properties. The oil, like the one extruded from the seeds of the plant, also possesses significant antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, but because it isn't as popular, it is rarely employed medicinally. [12]

Carob - Esoteric Uses

In spite of its long standing use as a foodstuff, medicine, and sundry other purposes, there is very little mention of the esoteric and magickal employment of carob trees or any of its constituent parts, save of course in the numerous immortal passages found in Judaic, Islamic, and Judaeo-Christian literature. These references are chiefly tales which detail how the carob plant have sustained (at one time or another) a dizzying number of mystics, madmen, repentants, prophets, healers, and radicals - the most notorious (in a good way perhaps) of the two being Saint John the Baptist, and John the Beloved Disciple, who was (as the legends go) later to become John of Patmos, the author of 'The Revelations of Saint John'.

Outside of its mention in the Abrahamic Faiths, no other accounts of carob's magickal employment exist, save in the Western correspondence of magickal herbs which state that it is an herb of health and protection - again a nod to its amazing nutritive and sustaining qualities. [13] One may theorise that during ancient times, the seeds must have at one time or another been carried about one's person as an amulet. This may have been what caused its later employment as a counterweight to weigh gold, silver, and gemstones in the Middle East (and from where our word 'carat' originates). It was a system that was used wherever the influence of Middle Eastern culture, or the trappings of its trade have been found. The term '24-carat' gold came about much later, well into the height of the Roman Empire - a full millennium perhaps after the employment of the carob seed as a measure came to be. The term came to be employed as a measure for the Roman solidus a pure gold coin that weighed exactly twenty-four grams, and was equal to some (give or take one or two) twenty-four seeds. The measure became defunct long before the Roman Empire Fell, and with the advent of standardisation, was soon discontinued and became nothing more than a footnote in history and a fixture of etymology.

Carob - Contraindications And Safety

Carob is generally regarded as safe for people of all ages and all physical conditions, typically being consumed without any ill-effects or adverse reactions, and may even be given to pregnant and nursing women, as well as to very young children.

Carob - Other Names, Past and Present

Chinese: jiao dou shu / chiao tou shu
Japanese: ina gomame
Korean: kalobeu (onomatopoeia of the English word 'carob')
Malayalam: gelenggang
Thai: chum het tai
Arabic: karruba / kharoub
Turkish: keciboynuzu
Hebrew: haroov / kav-kharoovin (lit. 'life-saving tree')
Old French: carobe
French: caroube / carouge / feve de Pythagore / figuier d'Egypte / Pain de Saint Jean-Baptiste
Spanish: algarrobo / algarroba
Portuguese: alfarrobeira (when referring to the tree) / alfarroba (when referring to the fruit)
Catalan: garrofer / garrofa
Italian: carrubo / carruba
German: Johannisbrotbaum
Greek: charoupia / ksilokeratia / keras / keration
Latin (esoteric): siliqua
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Ceratonia siliqua (not to be confused with Jacaranda caroba, which, while also known as 'carob tree' is not carob-proper)

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Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt.

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