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.
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|
|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?|
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
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.
hop hornbeam - Ostrya carpinifolia - carpino nero
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|
blackthorn - Prunus spinosa - prugnolo
|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|
|our native variety is nowhere near as colourful as this|
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.
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