by Charlene Burgi
(This is part two of Charlene’s trip to Italy. Read the first installment here.)
Central and northern Italy’s flora was amazing. The dense, lush vegetation filled every inch that didn’t have a structure or wasn’t cultivated for crops (primarily grapes and olive trees in the Tuscan region). The narrow, twisting, hilly roads in Greve guided us through forests thick with brambles, vines, and wildflowers. Each turn in the road surprised us with charming, tiny villages as we made our way to the Autostrada that paved the way to the ancient walled cities of Tuscany.
For several days, San Gimignano, Siena, Montepulciano, Pienza, Montalcino, Monteriggioni, and Lucca found my daughter Lynette, her husband Jeff, and my son Randy coaxing me up the steep roads, and what seemed like thousands of steps, to reach the heart and plazas of these walled medieval towns. All the Stair Masters of the world could not have prepared me for this grueling exercise! Though my calves were screaming, the desire to explore drove me on to find the artifacts and ancient art I had read about. In every plaza we found a well covered with a metal grate. The steps leading up to each well provided seating for the weary tourist.
What I didn’t expect was the abundance of window boxes crammed with color that brightened up the ancient structures from the 12th and 13th centuries. Within these ancient cities, all the vegetation was in containers. Repeatedly, star jasmine seemed to be the “star” as its scent filled the air. Despite the size of the plants, I was impressed that all flourished so well in containers. One restaurant even created an outdoor covered arbor using containers of grape vines and, you guessed it, star jasmine to provide shade for the diners underneath.
The stone walls of the cities sprouted beautiful foliage that accented the patterns formed by stone masons of yesteryear. The fortress walls angled back toward the center of the town. Even though the stone collected the heat from the summer sun, rain could easily find its way into the crevices to irrigate the tenacious plants.
And rain it did! While in Pienza, Randy and I ducked into the Palazzo Piccolomini, the former papal palace, to find an open roof that allowed rain to collect in the marble-covered room below. Indoor plants of all types prospered in this wealthy environment. Upon our return to the car, we entered a beautiful park where familiar Cotinus coggygria (smoketree) was in full bloom, but sporting white panicles instead of the familiar smokey, pinkish-purple that I know. At that point, the sky opened up and we were grateful for the canopy of trees in the park acting as a giant umbrella for these ill-prepared tourists!
If conditions are right, plants will thrive. This knowledge was driven home to me over and over again as I witnessed the beauty around me abounding in containers, crevices, and other harsh conditions. It drove home the point of planting native for maximum effectiveness. Year-round rain in Tuscany may increase gardening options without the need of irrigation, but the same principle still applies here at home.