Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

Botany is everywhere

December 30, 2010

fior di lisi

The fleur-de-lis is a familiar symbol of all things French, from heraldry to Joan of Arc, so I was surprised to see the symbol in Siena, Italy as the fior di lisi. It’s the coat of arms for Florence, and so also appears in Siena, because Florence is the capital of Tuscany (our guide and friend Antonella is fiercely loyal to Siena, and so likes to downplay that last fact).

The Italian symbol appeared on coins minted in Florence in the 12th century – the same time it appeared on coins in France (thanks to this interesting site for the info: www.fleurdelis.com/fleur.htm). But look carefully at the two symbols and you’ll see that the Italian version shows stamen sticking out of the flower.

And what is that flower? It’s commonly known as a lily, but doesn’t look like any lily I’ve ever seen, unless someone has purposely bent back the petals to make it look like an iris. That is the alternate interpretation – that it’s an iris; now, which makes much more sense, because you can see the falls (petallike structures bending down) and a standard (petallike structure sticking up) so clearly. The fleur-de-lis, known as the golden lily, appears to be Iris pseudoacorus – the yellow flag of marshy ground and water’s edge in Europe.

Except for those stamen in the Italian version. Stamen don’t stick out of an iris; the bees need to land on the fall (which is fuzzy in bearded iris) and crawl in. Maybe the Italians just wanted to set themselves apart from the French, and so they added the floral structure to mark the Florentine fior di lisi. Regardless, it’s always good to see botany getting its due through the many centuries of heraldry and religious symbols.

Next summer, we’ll check out the French version on our tour of Normandy,

fleur-de-lis

Brittany, and Paris, where we may indeed see a few real lilies and irises. Here are the details of the tour.

Italian cypress, not so Italian after all

December 2, 2010

Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) evokes a sense of place more than many plants – those tall, slim, exclamation points in the landscape, whether planted in rows, dotted around or gathered together in small groups, have always spoken of Italy to me. Their contribution to the rolling hills of Tuscany is not overrated, as I saw on our first visit there, in October. From the garden of the villa where we stayed, we could look the cypresses throughout the valley and across to the next hill town. On day trips, we saw them lining driveways that criss-crossed hills up to a house. Close-up we could marvel at the blobby round cones with deep fissures in them. Two things became clear on our visit, one I knew but never appreciated, and the other a surprise.

San Domenico, Siena

Those tall slim cypresses that we see in the States are mostly from a single cultivar. Well, not really a cultivar, but a group. It’s the Stricta group, instead of ‘Stricta’, because over time many slim forms of the cypress occurred, some raised from seed instead of grown from cuttings – and only cuttings would ensure that each ‘Stricta’ was like the last. When raised from seed, they may have some variations in appearance, so all the generally exquisitely narrow forms are collected into the general label.

In Tuscany, we saw the variety that can occur with a straight species. Some tall and thin, some more plump, some extremely treelike, with a trunk showing at the bottom benearth the green coat above. OK, it isn’t as if some of them looked like Monterey cypress, with the wide, wild, windswept appearance that growing on the Northern California coast provides, but still, there was a good mix of Italian cypress forms.

La Foce

The surprise is that Italian cypress probably isn’t native to Italy. It is native to Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and other parts of the eastern Mediterranean region. Because it has been in cultivation for so long – and we’re talking thousands of years – it has naturalized in areas where it was planted. And one of those places is Italy.

Oh, some people scoff at those of us who call it Italian cypress – how could we be so dense? – and refer to it as the Mediterranean cypress; fine, do as you like. But I’ve been to Italy now and I’ve seen it. It is too securely fastened to my memory, and it won’t be anything else but Italian.

 

Notes on Italy: La Foce

November 9, 2010

Sure, October is the only time I’ve ever been to Italy, but it must be the best time. Hearing the olives drop into buckets as they are harvested while sitting in the garden with a glass of wine. Yes, be envious, be very envious.

We rented a villa in one of the Tuscan hill towns, and so we had a home for a week. Although we had several town tours, only one garden was included – I guess we’ll have to go back. You may not think October the best time for a garden visit, but you’d be wrong. These gardens need no frills to be admired. The formal lines of La Foce, for example, are a perfect foil to the Tuscan hills beyond.

La Foce was designed by Cecil Pinsent for Iris Origo, who died in 1988. It was a chilly, windy day when we visited, but the garden and hills beyond held our attention. It’s a place to which I will return, if only to admire the formality around me while gazing out at the muted colors of the Crete Senesi – the unusual clay soil. Winter wheat was being planted while we were there.

Coming soon: what we learned about the Florence airport, renting a car, grocery shopping and the olive oil festival in Montisi.

 

The baggallini brigade

February 16, 2010

I didn’t know that baggallini bags were such a cult item. While signing books at the University Bookstore author’s table at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show, someone noticed my baggallini Around Town Bagg (color: espresso/tomato) and pointed to her own baggallini. We’re our own underground group.

I promised that this bag would be for travel, but I can’t stop using it for everyday, because it’s so darn handy. The pockets! One for business cards, one for sunglasses (safely stowed through most of the Seattle winter), one for thin stuff, one for big stuff, another one for big stuff, a little one inside that one. Whew. And a wide strap that doesn’t kill my shoulders. Coming up, the travel test as I head to Philadelphia to speak at the flower show, Chicago to check out their show, then later in March to Texas to check out the bluebonnets. This summer, Ireland, England. Fall, Italy. This is what comes of not going anywhere in the awful year 2009, I’m ready to burst at the seams. But my baggallini will be intact.