Friday, July 25, 2014

Our Trees

Local Trees and Bushes,
a Taxonomy

This list is restricted to trees which we found at Le Ripe on our arrival and excludes the (now) wild fruit trees such as fig, cherry and plum planted or at least harvested by our predecessors. All except the juniper and cypress are deciduous.

downy oak - Quercus pubescens - roverella

Typical of hill country from the Alps to Sicily, in Tuscany the downy oak replaces the Mediterranean woods or macchia above a certain altitude. It has been characterized as a 'frugal' oak since it survives well in dry locations with poor, lime-rich, stony soil. The downy oak grows slowly and can live to several hundred years; it is not very tall (about 20 metres max) and has traditionally been used for firewood and to make charcoal. Downy oak acorns are much loved by wild boar and fed to domestic pigs, but were historically used for human consumption in times of famine.
The oak's name derives from the fine down which covers its younger leaves and the acorn stalks. In regions with milder temperatures, like ours, it is easy to distinguish in autumn and winter as it is the only oak to keep its leaves (which turn pale brown), sometimes until early spring. 

Turkey oak - Quercus cerris - cerro

This handsome oak usually appears together with its cousin the downy oak, hop hornwood and often beech (although not at Le Ripe, alas). They prefer calcium-rich soil. There are still great woods of Turkey oak in central and southern Italy. The Turkey oak is a rapid grower, reaching 20 metres, but its wood is not prized as it is subject to rotting and splitting. Its large, hairy-cupped acorns contain so much tannin that they are not eaten by wild boar although jays and doves seem to like them. The tree hosts the gall wasp whose cocoons or galls resemble smooth walnuts. In the past ink was made from these oak galls. 

field maple - Acer campestre - acero campestre

Not my favourite tree at Le Ripe, perhaps because it is not particularly attractive and crops up everywhere, the field (or hedge) maple was first planted by the  farmers who used it as a living support (tutore vivo) for their vines. It likes alkaline soil and responds well to pruning: the trees were kept small. Since the departure of the farmers, the field maples have liberated themselves entirely at Le Ripe and reach 25 metres tall, populating the areas once cultivated with vines, and spreading beyond. It is a familiar plant in the whole of rural Italy with the exception of the far south. 
The wood is used to make furniture, flooring and violins; Stradivari was the first to use field maple for the bridge which holds up violin strings. But it was also used for more mundane things such as firewood and charcoal. 
Its lack of appeal to the denizens of Le Ripe stems from its tendency to self-seed very easily and to become quite an untidy-looking tree, without the advantage of other varieties of maples: wonderful autumn colouring. 

literally millions of these samara or wingnuts/helicopters/spinning jennies alight on the ground each season, and a hefty portion of them germinate, so we are continually uprooting baby field maples
 manna ash -  Fraxinus ornus - orniello

all our young manna ash tend to be a little crooked as we have freed them from surrounding thickets; we hope with time that they may straighten - shades of King Cnut?

Graceful manna ash: we feel fortunate that this tree grows spontaneously at Le Ripe. The name derives from the theory that the biblical manna which succoured Moses and his people in the desert may have been the sweet, edible sap of the fraxinus ornus, although now we know that the tree did not grow in the desert - the manna may have been a lichen. Still today in southern Italy the sap is harvested for the confectionery industry. The wood of the manna ash resembles that of the ash tout court and was an excellent wood for many purposes, from oars to masts, to tool handles and tennis rackets (all of which are now made with lightweight metals or plastics). The foliage was once fodder for farm animals. 
The tree, which reaches a maximum height of 25 metres, has a smooth, dark grey, mottled bark and in spring is covered with a feathery cloud of white panicles. The greatest glory of mature manna ash is when the leaves turn in autumn: the colour varies from gold to purplish burgundy.

juniper - Juniperus communis - ginepro

A plant to be found all over Italy, from sea level to altitudes around 3,000 metres where the prostrate version flourishes. Juniper can thrive in even the poorest soils and is important for consolidating slopes. It can reach about 10 metres tall and is dioecious - some plants are male, others female. In the past the wood of the juniper was used, together with beech, for smoking and preserving ham, and the berries (which in fact are tiny cones) were considered an antidote for various ills. Today we use them sparingly when cooking game. 

hazel - Corylus avellana - nocciolo

Although they are indigenous all over Italy, the hazel trees at Le Ripe were most likely planted as a crop: there is an area at the entrance to the property which is literally a hazel wood. The slender, flexible branches of hazel were extremely useful to farmers for many purposes, including construction; the bushes would be coppiced every seven years. Hazel also makes excellent hedging and the branches are traditionally used for dowsing.
The shrub grows to about 8 metres but can be taller. the nuts would have been eaten by man in the past although today the main benificiaries are squirrels, crows and boar. At the end of winter, the hazel trees are covered in pale yellow catkins.

field elm - Ulmus carpinifolia/minor - olmo campestre

The field elm grows up to 30 metres tall. Although affected, like other varieties of elm, by Dutch elm disease, the field elms are in fact quite resistant; this summer we found one dead and cut it down, burning the branches, but other trees seem to be weathering the storm. The tree can live to a great age (specimens of up to 700 years old have been verified). Researching for this post I have discovered that a variety of this elm, the 'Cork-barked elm', with 'branchlets...furnished with corky wings' occurs in dry habitats: indeed we have some at Le Ripe. With its good strong wood which is easy to work, field elm was long used to make farm equipment and in the past the young fruit, or samaras, commonly called pane di maggiolino, were eaten in salads and omelettes.

white poplar - Populus alba - pioppo

There are no white poplars close to the house but we see many on the hillside and by the Pesa river. They grow up to 30 metres tall. The poplar is a kind of ur-tree here since the local name for it is simply albero, which means tree. The poplar is also mentioned by Horace, Virgil and Pliny.
The fine white fuzz on the back of the leaves, which when fluttering in the slightest breeze show silvery white, and the pale bark, explain the name. In addition, in spring, the tree sheds fluffy clouds of white seeds. When the weather is dry they line the sides of roads and resemble snow. The white poplar tends to grow near  waterways as it prefers damp soil.
Poplar wood is used for furniture and doors but here the native trees are not utilized, just their hybrid Euro-American cousins.

hop hornbeam - Ostrya carpinifolia - carpino nero

The hop hornbeam is found in our woods; it prefers the cooler locations where ash, maple and oak also flourish. 'Frugal' like the downy oak, it is resistant to drought and fire and can tolerate very chalky terrain. It is a medium-size tree reaching up to 18 metres in height and its foliage is compact. The pendulous fruits resemble hop flowers, hence the name in English.
Like the field maple the hop hornbeam responds well to coppicing and pruning, makes an excellent hedge and was likewise used for firewood and charcoal in the past. The hard, heavy wood (the name Ostrya comes from the Greek for 'bone-like'), was also used for supporting vines, for farm machinery and wheel spokes. However wood is no longer necessary for such uses, consequently trees like hornbeam, field maple and downy oak do not enjoy the guardianship they once did. Nowadays there is an active debate amongst forestry administrators about how to care for this valuable resource.

hawthorn - Crataegus monogyna - biancospino

we have no such magnificent specimen, but can hope that our bushes will thrive once the deer are excluded from the garden

Although the hawthorn can reach 10+ metres in height we do not have any of this size. A favourite nibble of the deer, many of our hawthorns have been pruned back to modest, slender trees. When we get the fence...
The hawthorn of course has pretty clusters of white flowers in May (it is also called 'may' in English and is what I associate with Shakespeare's darling buds). The pretty red fruits or haws each contain a single seed and are much loved by birds. Often used for hedgerows, the hawthorn grows quite fast and is tough and dense when pruned; it is also tolerant of various types of earth. The Ancient Greeks used the flowering branches for their wedding ceremonies. The Latin name derives from kratos, meaning strength, for the wood is strong and the plant sturdy.
The flowers, fruit and bark of the hawthorn have sedative and cardiotonic properties and the buds can be preserved like caper buds. The haws can be used for jellies and syrups and flavouring and the young petals and leaves can be eaten in salads. The hawthorn also provides good wood for burning, with little smoke.
It is another long-lived tree: one of the most famous specimens is the Hethel Old Thorn which was reputedly planted in the 13th century. 

blackthorn - Prunus spinosa - prugnolo

The blackthorn is both a pest and a pleasure. Like the hawthorn it was used for hedging, and very effective it would have been too, with its sharp, hard, wicked thorns. We must have cleared hundreds of blackthorn bushes when we first came to Le Ripe. The sloe, its deep blue fruit, is possibly the original plum and is used for jams, liqueurs and flavouring gin. With our sloe and juniper we could really set up a gin distillery at Le Ripe. Finally, the leaves can be dried and roasted and brewed like tea.
The blackthorn is a bush but can reach 6 metres tall; we have a lovely tree-like specimen on the north side of the house. The white flowers mist the hills early in spring and make you forget how perfidious the plant is, while the thickets it forms are excellent protection for wildlife and nests. The wood is strong and hard and polishes well. Once it was used for farm tools, carving and walking sticks but also made an excellent slow-burning, low-smoke wood like the hawthorn.

the astringent fruit, if picked after the first frosts (or frozen) can even be eaten raw (sloes were found in the stomach of the 5.300 year old mummy Ötzi!); the juice dyes linen red which washes out to a lasting pale blue

dogwood - cornus sanguinea - sanguinella 

A modest, inconspicuous bush (up to 6 metres tall) during most of the year, the dogwood has its day in autumn when its leaves turn deep red and shiny black berries appear. A hedge and wood shrub, it grows in poor, alkaline soils and spreads by stolons and seed. It is often found together with hawthorn, blackthorn and wild clematis (Clematis vitalba). Another 'frugal' plant, it is also useful for consolidating hillsides. The wood of blackthorn used to be burnt as charcoal and long ago was used for millwheel gears, for pestles and for wheel spokes while lamp oil was extracted from the berries; the fruits made an excellent dye and the twigs were used in basketry. And our old friend Ötzi was found to have arrows made of dogwood. Nowadays it is an ornamental plant; once the leaves of the garden varieties have fallen, the bare red and orange-tinged branches provide an attractive showing in winter. However the dogwood can help to protect orchards since many birds prefer their berries to cultivated fruits, while still hunting for pests which would otherwise harm the fruit trees. 

our native variety is nowhere near as colourful as this
spindle - Euonymus europaeus - berretta da prete

The spindle is called berretta da prete or priest's hat in Italian, as its fruit resembles just that: it is in fact the little tree's finest feature. In autumn the cheerful capsular berries appear on bare twigs. The four lobes split open when ripe, revealing the orange seeds. These fruits are poisonous.
In the past the hard, white compact wood of this plant was used for spindles for the hand-spinning of wool, hence its name in English. The tree smells unpleasantly and the crushed fruits are emetic; country people would use them as purgatives and in the past the pulverized leave and seeds would be dusted on children against lice.
The shrub or small tree which can grow to 6 metres, enjoys poor, alkaline soil. Nowadays it is used as an ornamental plant in gardens thanks to its hardiness and bright autumn colouring. 

cypress - Cupressus sempervirens - cipresso

There were two cypresses at Le Ripe when we arrived; subsequently we have planted more, three of which we raised from sprouts.
Probably not native to Italy, the cypress may have been brought here by the Etruscans or the Phoenicians and  almost certainly originates in the eastern Mediterranean, natural forests of it being found in Turkey. However it has naturalized so well, particularly in central Italy, that it has become part of what is now considered a typical  landscape. The variety I am referring to is the tall, slim pyramidalis which can reach 25 to 40 metres in height, although the bushier, unkempt-looking horizontalis is equally well integrated and often used for the reforestation of arid, poor terrains. The pyramidalis or pencil-pine, is used almost exclusively as an ornamental plant or as a windbreak and can live to a great age (the oldest living cypress, Sarv-e-Abarkuh, in Iran is roughly 4,000 years old). Originally cypresses were planted around cemeteries and associated with the funereal.
Cypress wood is extremely hard and used in many ways in the Mediterranean: the doors of St. Peter's in Rome are of cypress; it was prized for furniture because its aromatic properties protect it from bora or woodworm: in the Middle Ages it was used for trunks where linen was stored. According to ancient authors, the cypress purifies the air; in the past people suffering from certain ailments were sent to Crete where the cypress abounds. It has also been shown to be quite resistant to fire.
Whatever its uses in the past, nowadays the cypress is an ornamental tree for us humans, yet it provides a safe and sheltered habitat for much wildlife. At times our cypresses look as bustling as the Santa Maria Novella station in Florence.

Having researched and compiled this information on Le Ripe's trees and bushes I have realized how radically attitudes to these important companions of ours have changed over the last century. Once trees were a vital element in the lives of humans not simply for their regeneration of soil, terrain and air, which continue to this day despite our depredations, but importantly for their almost limitless contribution to the daily life, work and well-being of man. Man's age-long, low-technology exploitation/use of trees was balanced by his care: it was in his own interest to conserve. 
Today we choose and cultivate trees for our gardens largely for aesthetic reasons, at best ignoring the indigenous growth, at worst destroying it. The guardians of the forests in Italy and elsewhere are now bureaucrats and virtual policemen - here the guardie forestali circulate armed and uniformed. 
This sounds like the lament of a nostalgic ecologist, but the reality is that we have lost a level of symbiosis with our natural surroundings, when there was a perhaps healthier give-and-take between us and our tree-companions. 
I cultivate or tolerate the spindle bush and dogwood because they are pretty in autumn, not because their branches make superlative spindles or because their berries are an excellent dye. We have done much work in the garden, but the oaks on our hill grow willy-nilly; there are fallen trees next to healthy ones which in turn crowd others; hazels grow tall and spindly, in need of coppicing; where vines once danced along terracing between pruned fruit trees and pollarded field maples there reigns a tangle of smothering undergrowth, the trees struggling to grow tall. 
Of course we don't need this local wood any longer for tools and farm equipment or making doors, tables and dowry chests, and pollarding and coppicing only make sense if you are farming the land for a living. 
But thank heavens there are still those who appreciate fine woods and turn their hand to the old crafts, deriving pleasure from hand turning, cabinetmaking and carpentry. 

See this post and this one on local craftsmen and their art.

dedicated to my uncle the carpenter and his love of trees and wood

1 comment:

  1. This presentation is engrossing with its empathetic background history and interesting personal involvement.. We need to be in touch with our natural environment. Well done.


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