The Ancient Greeks called Ibiza and Formentera the Pitiusas – the Pine Islands – for the abundance of pine but in reality, it’s the noble Sabina that best represents the island’s resilient nature, both physically and metaphorically. Hardy, long lasting and witness to the many changes of its homeland, this virtuous tree continues to grow slowly, to the beat of its own internal and hearty drum.
These days, the Sabinas we see gnarled along the coastline appear small, sometimes shrub-like, their limbs twisted and turned, their shape determined by the elements, yet there was a time when they towered like silent giants up to ten metres high and one metre thick. The local population cared for them as they would an ageing and respected relative, carefully and judiciously pruning the long trunks to grow straight, wide and tall until they were ready to be cut, stripped and hewn by hand into the thick beams seen today in the island’s oldest farmhouses.
Gone are the giants, as their slow-growing ways lagged behind the people’s need for hardwood. Some examples with impressive dimensions are still left scattered across the island in Es Codolar, Es Cavallet, Ses Salines and the slopes of Es Vedra, but for the most part, we have only the roof beams of old farmhouses left as a vestigial testament to these once great trees.
When the Phoenicians arrived in Ibiza around 650 BC, they would have recognised something godly in the local species of Sabina. As a member of the juniper family, this rugged tree was connected to the goddess Astarte, a precursor to Tanit, the Phoenician goddess of fertility and the pre-historical patron saint of Ibiza. It’s not hard to imagine that these master shipbuilders recognised the usefulness of this hardwood, while their priests appreciated the usefulness of its fragrant resin and bark.
Today this tree is protected by law, but in the past, it was harvested to supply a number uses. The bark was once used as moulds for cheese, and the twigs and leaves as a salve for rheumatism but its primary use was for roof beams. The wood is smooth to the touch, somehow comforting – it’s hard not to be impressed by the size of these beams, lifted into place without the help of machinery, smoothed over with handheld hatchets, rubbed and coaxed to a dull sheen, the hands of so many ancestors imprinted in their surface.
There’s a scent to the old farmhouses, which comes from the resin of the beams. It’s musky and earthy, a pleasant reminder of our connection to nature. The ancient Romans were known to burn the twigs and bark as ceremonial incense. The perfume is abhorrent to insects further making it the perfect wood for building houses. If correctly harvested and the bark stripped immediately the wood become highly resistant to rot and humidity.
No doubt, over the next thousand odd years, thanks to environmental protections we will see the Sabina return to its glory but until then, the designers at Blakstad Design Consultants suffice with other woods, just as noble in origin and equally as beautiful yet far more sustainable. Sabina can still be sourced from the north of Spain, where the climate allows for the tree to grow slightly faster. It’s a sub-species, without the exact characteristics of the local one and it’s often used as a replacement. The irregular shapes and knotty surface is prized both for its appearance and its durability, which, with good care, can last centuries. But its slow-growing nature makes it a wood for patient builders.
Supply, of course, is an issue, as is sustainability but aesthetics also come into play. Blakstad Design Consultants sources a number of woods from the mainland and the choice will always be dictated by our client’s tastes and the overall theme of the project. Recently elm was the wood of choice for its noble heritage, strength and fine grain; its ashy colour can be beautifully utilised to provide a gentleness to grand rooms. Unfortunately, the supply of elm wood has been adversely affected by the emergence of Dutch elm disease whose virulence across Europe lead our team to start using chestnut – another wood steeped in history and symbolism.
There’s a desire to leave woods in their natural state, celebrating the colours and shapes determined by nature. A high ceilinged or vaulted room, traditionally lime washed, can really sing with the power of raw, exposed beams lending a rustic element even in homes that lean towards contemporary interiors – a homage or acknowledgement to the history of the landscape and culture.
Yet it’s a long game and our designers always consider how things might look in the future. Sabina, depending on which part of the tree it comes from, might be pale or age into a deep yellow. If the beam has been cut from the heart of the tree, the tone will lean towards a deep red. At times, the wood benefits from staining, allowing a darker tenor to offset the room providing a dramatic frame – all of these are personal choices but the character of the wood is to age in the way determined by nature.
Beamed ceilings show us the bones of the house and induce a sense of comfort, bringing depth and warmth – a reminder of the natural world that has supplied us with the tools to build our shelters. Left bare, stained or painted, there is something about exposed beams that make us feel protected. In contemporary design, exposed beams can deliver a textural contrast complementing modernity and connecting us to our history, and a Sabina beam – whether old or new – holds much of the island’s story writ in grain, texture and colour.