The modern chocolate substitute that once weighed diamonds.

A small hardwood native to the eastern Mediterranean, the carob, or locust bean, tree (Ceratonia siliqua) produces pulpy, sucrose-rich pods up to 12" long. Because of the pod's natural sweetness and chocolate like flavor, it's become a favorite health food alternative. You'll find it in yogurt, wrapped as snack food "chocolate" bars, and in powder form similar to cocoa for hot drinks.

Using the carob pod for food isn't a 20th-century phenomenon. Where carob grows, the poor and hungry have always looked upon it as a staple—mashing pods for a vegetable or eating them raw from the tree. Egyptians extracted syrup from the pods, then fermented it as a royal liquor for their pharohs. Even John the Baptist found nourishment in the carob pod during his sojourn in the wilderness, according to biblical scholars.

As well-known as carob may be to health food advocates and Mediterranean peoples, its greatest fame stems from its association with precious stones. Ancient jewelers, seeking a standard weight measurement for gems, discovered the hard, heavy seeds of the carob pod. They began to use the seeds singly or in multiples to assign value to individual stones. Over the years, the term for these seeds evolved to become "carat," the now-universal weight unit for diamonds and other stones of value (one carat equals 200 milligrams).

With all its present uses, the large stands of carob found today in Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and other countries bordering the Mediterranean seldom become lumber. While some carob wood finds its way into turnings and small novelty items, the tree's small size makes it impractical for anything but producing pods.