Friday, December 16, 2011

The Pines of Rome

December is not really the time to go wildflower hunting in Italy, but I happened to be there for other reasons last week, and kept one eye on the lookout for things botanical.  Of course, Italy isn’t exactly buried in snow in December.  Except for the high mountains, the country enjoys a mild Mediterranean climate – there are palm trees all over the place!  So it’s like California or Florida; there’s always some kind of plant life.

The uniquely shaped pines of Rome, photographed
here in Florence,  are Pinus pinea.
Rome is sometimes referred to as the eternal city, and some of its most remarkably plants are eternal in the sense of being evergreen.  I have heard Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” many times, without really knowing what the big deal was, but upon actually seeing pines in Rome, I must say they are truly marvelous.  The common species is the umbrella pine, Pinus pinea, whose trunk branches into a unique rounded crown.   It is native throughout the Mediterranean region, and has been cultivated for 6000 years for its edible seeds.  Its presence turns any landscape into a classic work of art, especially when juxtaposed against small groves of Italian cypress.

Italian cypress trees mingle with olive trees
 near Florence.
Italian cypress, or Cupressus sempervirens, also has a unique shape: compact, upright, narrow, reaching for the sky.  It is often planted in cemeteries, not only for its heaven-aspiring posture, but also because the roots grow straight down and do not disturb graves.  It too is native throughout the Mediterranean region and Middle East, but seems to be especially characteristic of the Italian landscape.

The most common palm is the windmill palm, Trachycarpus fortunei, a native of China and one of the most cold-hardy palms (see “The many uses of Trachycarpus” in my publication list).   Along the coast are majestic specimens of the Canary Island Date Palm, Phoenix canariensis, which is a staple of the Riviera landscape.  A palm native to parts of the Mediterannean coastal scrub is the European Fan Palm, Chamaerops humilis, of which I think I got a glimpse from the bus as we headed for Pisa.  I’m sure that if we’d gone further south, we would have seen many more cultivated palms.
The windmill palm, Trachycarpus fortunei, on a hillside in Florence.

Olives ripen throughout the Fall in Italy.
December is the time for fruit.  There are ripening olives (Olea europea), as well as the bright red fruits of holly, Pyracanthus, and Nandina, not to mention the edible fruits of the tree strawberry, Arbutus unedo.  The bright red color of many of these fruits attracts hungry birds, who in exchange for the meal carry the seeds in their guts until they relieve themselves in a new location.
Holly berries ripen just in time for Christmas.

If I have the privilege of traveling again in this beautiful country, I will go after the winter rains, in March or April, which is truly the wildflower season.

The tree strawberry, Arbutus unedo.

Caper vines, Capparis spinosa, grow from cracks
in the wall of the medieval town of San
Gimignano. The flower buds of the caper are
used to spice up Italian foods.