Posts Tagged ‘Siena’

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: 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,


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.