by Charlene Burgi
(This is part three of our garden expert Charlene’s trip to Italy. Read the first and second installments.)
A day exploring Florence and visiting the leaning tower of Pisa completed our stay in Tuscany. Liguria was our next destination, where we found the five picturesque fishing villages along the Italian Mediterranean otherwise known as Cinque Terre. We were pleasantly surprised as we headed out of the Tuscan region as we drove under an unmarked, ancient aqueduct still carrying water to regions that I imagined to be nearby.
To the north loomed mountain ranges that I thought to be covered in snow. We soon realized the glistening white of the mountains near Carrara were quarries of marble that Michelangelo once traversed searching for the perfect piece to create artwork such as his sculpture of David.
As we continued north, the roads wound like a lazy snake through the wildflower-covered hills. Below lay the clear waters of the Mediterranean. We soon found the time allotted to explore this region was too short. We only had two nights and a full day to see all that we could. Transportation to these little fishing villages required taking a train, a boat, or hiking, so we opted to take in only two of the five villages. We were thankful for the ability to reach the jeweled towns, for it was only in 1926 that roads were cut into the hillside to reach them. Otherwise, they could only be reached by boat!
Randy at the public grotto
We arrived during the weekend and the tiny communities were mobbed with tourists. We walked along the busy, narrow streets where I noticed people milling about a grotto. Upon closer inspection, we saw the grotto featured an open spigot where the drinking water flowed freely. People clamored to the precious liquid to refill their water bottles, wash their hands, or cool their brow.
The sight of water freely flowing unnerved the water conservationist in me. It was an assault to my senses! The paradox is, while the water escaped into the basin below, every restaurant in Italy charged for a bottle of drinking water—asking with or without “gas” (known to us as sparkling water). I wondered why the restaurants in Marin don’t exercise this practice with water being such a precious commodity—after all, I now understand that it is so European! Would that practice ever catch on?
After recovering from the grotto, we traversed the breadth and width of the beautiful beaches and tiny streets that were covered with magnificent flora. Bougainvillea, lantana, ivy geraniums, and so much more filled the grounds of exquisite estates that faced the Mediterranean.
As we walked along one path, Lynette asked me to identify a plant. I had never seen it before but fell in love with the delicate flower. Guido and Paulo, friends of Lynette who live in Italy and met us at Cinque Terre, quickly pulled out their smart phones to identify the plant as Capparis spinosa, otherwise known as capers—the very accoutrement that we use in cooking! I couldn’t wait to find out more about this plant. It was, in fact, one of the first things I investigated upon my return. To my surprise, Capparis will grow in Marin! Why has this beauty eluded me, and would the nurseries be able to find this deciduous perennial bush also known as Flinder’s rose? True to its Mediterranean origin, it needs very little water, requires fast draining soil, but tolerates poor soil. This all made perfect sense as the plant we saw was growing in a rock wall. It can act as a groundcover or trail over walls. What a treasure!
Caper (Capparis spinosa)
May I encourage you to also explore using this plant in your landscape? The buds can be pickled if you use capers in your recipes. Just taking in the beauty of the delicate flowers from late spring through summer would bring enough joy as you watch the flowers open in the morning and close as evening approaches.
I fell asleep that night wondering if capers could survive in our little greenhouse in Lassen and missing the Mediterranean climate of Marin where I knew this plant could thrive and enhance any garden.