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Along the Umbrian Way
by Caleb Melchior - April 2013

When I came to Italy, I was prepared for storybook landscapes and postcard cities. I was not prepared for the masses of giant reed (Arundo donax) sweeping over the hills, rustling in big noisy groups. Nor was I prepared for great swaths of perennial cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium), slithering across the ground with their silvery leaf-scales. Where were the oranges, the palms, the lemon groves?

For Americans, many of the plants that we think of as typically Mediterranean come from the south of Italy and are too tender to grow as reliable perennials in much of the continental United States. Citrus, umbrella pines, olives and palms have short lives outdoors in Chicago, Pittsburgh or Saint Louis. However, given Umbria’s continental climate, where winters are actually cold, many of its typical perennial species will grow in the Central United States.


Giant reed grass (Arundo donax)

The most dominant grass of the Umbrian landscape, giant reed grass (Arundo donax) towers above surrounding landscape elements. Weirdly, it never seems to appear in photographs of the area. Common throughout warmer parts of the U.S., this grass is indigenous to the Mediterranean basin where it occurs frequently as large stands, which, at this time of year, are bleached khaki and rustle dully in the wind. Giant reed is actually considered an invasive species in California and some of the southern coastal states. However, its vigor is kept in check in the cooler winters of Zones 5 and 6. In Missouri, I grow the white-variegated form ‘Peppermint Stick’ in my “Exotic Garden” where its bright veining emphasizes the lushness of surrounding tropicals.


Italian arum (Arum italicum)

For more fun with leaves, take a look at Italian arum (Arum italicum). Back in my Missouri garden, we grow this arum in different variegated forms for their spectacular patterning of mottled reptilian greens and grays. In Umbria, it grows both in sun and shade, in large masses tumbling down the hills, between olives or sprouting out of abandoned walls. The leaves naturally have a wide variety of patterning, mostly of different shades of green. Some are darker than any I’ve seen elsewhere, almost forest or pine green. Few of them have the white or cream typical of variegated forms cultivated in England and the United States. After flowering in April, Italian arum dies back to the ground, leaving space for grasses to fill in around it.

Another ephemeral geophyte with a strong presence during the winter months, wild cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium) spreads out beneath the holm oaks (Quercus ilex) on shady north-facing slopes to create great carpets of mottled silver-green foliage in late winter and spring. During the summer, they lie dormant beneath the cracked earth, waiting for autumn rains to come and soften the soil so that their pink and magenta flowers can emerge. The wild boar eat them here, rooting around to uncover them.


Angelica (Angelica archangelica)
 

Oregano (Origanum vulgare)

Both beautiful and edible, angelica (Angelica archangelica) has fat fleshy stems and rough leaves like a more brightly colored version of lovage (Levisticum officinale) or celery (Apium graveolens). The plant grows in sunny, sheltered places where it can achieve its full height of 4 to 6 feet. Like other members of the Apiaceae, its greenish-cream umbels of flowers attract bees and other pollinators. Popular for medicinal use, as well as for flavoring liqueurs, the most common edible preparation of angelica occurs by candying the stems. They have a singular sweet aroma.

While anyone might be forgiven for failing to recognize the aroma of angelica, the little plants that grow in cracks in the walls around Orvieto have a fragrance far more familiar to American noses. Walk up and crush a few between your fingers to release the aroma of pizza, lasagna — any Italian-American restaurant. Oregano (Origanum vulgare) requires grit and special placement when I grow it at home. In Italy, it’s a weed.

Italy offers many surprises, not least of which is the richness of its flora. I went out in search of beautiful views and the famous olive vineyards. By the side of the road, I found plants I knew from my own garden, growing in situations I’d never imagined. Masses of giant reed lurk on the hills, rattling their brittle canes. Colonies of arums huddle in deep-green clumps between the rocks. Swaths of cyclamen spread out beneath the oaks. Banks of angelica scent the air with their strange perfume. Lone oreganos cling to life, hanging from cracks in the walls. Looking at the plants around me, I understand why gardens in Italy focus on paving and geometry. How can a gardener compete with a countryside where everything is a garden?

 


After years of gardening along the Mississippi River in Southern Missouri, Caleb Melchior is now studying for a master’s degree in landscape architecture at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. He is currently studying abroad in Italy.

 

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