Friday, June 29, 2012

… And That’s A Wrap!

The students from the International Horticulture class. First row, from left: Haley, Lauren, Susan, Emily, Kate, Abi, Angela. Second row left: Allison, Bryan, Heather, Page, Annalise, Dr. Leo, Melissa, Meredith, Hailey, Courtney, Michael, Sarah.

This is the closing post on the “Aggie Horticulture Goes to Italy” blog. I have to say that I could not be prouder of the wonderful 18 Aggies who meticulously and methodically posted their 90 (yes, ninety!) cultural and horticultural impressions of this Study Abroad course on this blog. I have heard that the number of followers of this blog has grown during these five weeks and I have received great comments about it. So, thank you for doing such a phenomenal job! 

I hope that you will always carry the memories and of this trip and this course (and I am sure the thousands of photos taken will facilitate that) and that the friendships you have made will last forever.
I also hope that this study abroad experience has taught you a lot about my country and that this course has made you more sensitive to the beauty of plants and more aware of the importance that they had in our past, still have in our present, and obviously will have in the future. If I have succeeded with that, than I can say that I have accomplished my goal.
Before closing this experience, I owe a big thank you to Marissa Faris, Experiential Learning Coordinator of the Department of Horticultural Sciences, for setting up the blog and to Katie Marek, Senior Academic Advisor also in the Department of Horticultural Sciences, for kicking off the blog posting and assisting with the initial part of the trip. And of course, all we did could not have happened without the help of the fantastic help of Sharon Jones and Garnette Gott and the entire staff of the Santa Chiara Study Center.
Alla prossima opportunità (until the next opportunity) and Gig’ em,

Leo Lombardini, Associate Professor
Department of Horticultural Sciences
Texas A&M University

A Crop Pervading Time and Space

SJ: When we first arrived in Castiglion Fiorentino the poppies had exploded in their vibrant reds between the cracks in the paving stones, the rows between grape vines in the vineyards, and the wheat fields, and even in the watercolor paintings of the street vendors. Now the blooming poppies have faded in Italy, but their worldwide effect is not fading. The opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, a different species than the one  that grow in Italy (Papaver rhoeas), is causing issues worldwide. Knowledge of these opium poppies has existed for centuries. The Ancient Greeks were already using opium extracted from these poppies medicinally, to treat asthma and stomach illness. Much later, in the 1830s the Opium Wars broke out between the British Empire and China as the Chinese tried to keep the British from selling opium in China and weakening the country by creating a population addicted to a drug. Today these poppies still have a great value and effect on many countries. The United States obtains 80% of its medicinal opium from India and Turkey from which morphine is extracted and often used as a pain reliever for hospital patients. In Afghanistan however, the cultivation of opium poppies for drug trafficking supports 1.7 million rural people. During drought and instability, Afghani farmers fell into great debt and began to cultivate Papaver somniferum as a source of cash, especially after the Soviet withdrawal. For many, opium poppies are not the crop of choice, but few other profitable alternatives exist. As a result, many poppy growers are now addicted to their own crop and babies are born already addicted to opium because their mothers smoked the drug while they were pregnant. These rural farmers and their crop of opium poppies have now become a concern of the United States, because the Taliban controls the illegal drug trafficking and obtains revenue from the sales. The United States has even bombed the poppy crop in Afghanistan to try to cut the Taliban drug ties. Poppies have been tied to many economic and political issues for centuries. These flowers have influenced the Italian countryside and art, modern day and ancient medicine, and have tied countries together in the sales of illegal drugs. Overall, the poppy has had a truly international effect since ancient times.

A True Southern Lady Graces Italy

Magnolia tree at the Vatican Gardens
 AJ     A true southern lady knows just how to make everyone stop and be amazed.  And a true southern lady makes her mark anywhere she goes.  As I have visited Italy, there has been one "Southern Lady" show herself and make everyone's jaw drop, the beautiful southern magnolia.  In America, it is one of the major markings of being in the south.  Now, how did such a important staple of the southern states of America make her way to Italy?

The southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, is a large evergreen tree that grows from zone 6A to 9(10). It has large 6-12 inch creamy white flowers that peak in spring, with some sporadically blooming until frost.  Due to it's large leaves and large blooms that drop and can be messy, many argue its worth in the landscape.  The Padova Botanical Garden claims to have one of the oldest magnolia species in Italy. One of the specimens dates back to 1786 and very well may be the first introduced into the country.  Others within the garden date back to the early 1800s.  These majestic trees are grown both in private gardens and public parks.

Florence and the fleur-de-lis

HJ: During our three trips to Florence, I frequently noticed a floral symbol all throughout public places and art. I learned that it was called the fleur-de-lis, and is the symbol of Florence. I was particularly interested in the fleur-de-lis because it is modeled after the iris, which is my favorite flower. In the DFW area where I grew up, German irises are a perennial, blooming in mid-spring with some rebloomers sending up flowers again in late summer/early fall. When we first came to Castiglion Fiorentino, there were a few pots with blooming German irises in them, which surprised me because the irises back home had been dead for over a month when we left in May.  Sadly, they died within a week of our being here, but I enjoyed them during the short span of time they were still alive.
There are two main types of iris used in the landscape and floral industries, Dutch (Iris x hollandica) and German (Iris x germanica) irises. Dutch irises are primarily used in the floral industry because they have a longer shelf life after being cut and processed. German irises wilt a day or so after being cut, and so aren’t valued in the floral industry, but they make great perennial landscape plants in areas they receive their minimal chilling requirement and will continue blooming for weeks at a time in the spring. I love them in part because of their unusual shape, but also because they are one of the only flowers that naturally occur in all colors of the rainbow. Blue flowers are relatively rare in nature, and irises come in multiple shades of blue along with all other colors. They are resilient, and can withstand being transplanted multiple times, as I learned when my mother would dig up the plants she had since childhood and bring them with us every time we moved. The irises I grew up with also were able to withstand both the drought and heat common to Texas and the attentiveness of my mother, equally formidable foes to the plants in my household.
In that sense, I find the iris to be a worthy and fitting choice of a symbol for Florence, a resilient and strong city with a proud history of democracy, and extremely lucrative and stable banking industry, and conquest of surrounding areas. Although the Medicis essentially took over Florence off and on for two hundred years, the city maintained its desire for freedom and retook governmental power following the wane of Medici influence. Florentines to this day are proud of their heritage and of their impressive history, and the fleur-de-lis embodies this pride in a beautiful manner.

Pompeii: Roman Domus

AG: In one of our many trips we went to visit the ancient Roman ruins of Pompeii. It was there that we saw a great example of one of the numerous topics we have covered in class, a Roman Domus. A domus is a type of house that was occupied by the upper classes and some wealthy freedmen during the Imperial and Republican eras. From the Roman Domus and the way it is designed, we focused on two things the most, the atrium and the peristyle. The Atrium would be considered the most important part of the house; it was open in the center and it was usually where the family guests were greeted. As for the peristyle, it was an open courtyard within the house. The example we had at Pompeii showed us what a Roman Domus looked like. As we made our way around the house we saw both the atrium and the peristyle. The atrium was basically a room that had an opened area on the roof and was what would give the room plenty of light as well as allowed air to circulate. Aside from those two things, it also allowed the family to collect drinking or washing water. As for the peristyle, it reminded me of a small garden (would be considered large because it is inside of the house) that had walkways to other rooms of the house. If it is as great as I have imagined it looked like, I am sure this type of house would have been beautiful to see when it was fully decorated.    

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Italian Passion for Purple

CC: As I gaze around as this wonderful place known as Castiglion Fiorentino it is difficult to miss the beauty that surrounds me. I know that soon I will be leaving this country and although I am saddened I also look forward to my return to Italy. The landscapes exceed everything that I have seen or ever imagined, with such an astonishingly vibrant landscape full of greenery, color, and life. There are many amazing plants that I have been introduced to throughout my stay, but my absolute favorite is the purple ornamental plum tree (Prunus cerasifera) that provides a perfect accent to the Italian countryside. This ornamental tree is native to Persia and was first introduced to Europe in 1880. This specimen is specifically known and used in landscapes for its beautiful reddish-purple foliage as well as its small pink flowers. Although this variety is a member of the plum family the fruit that is born is not used for the commercial production of edible plums. In Europe these small ornamental trees, approximately 20-25 feet in height, are popularly used as a colorful accent in gardens and landscapes. Personally I love the deep rich shade of purple of these particular plum trees for they catch my eye every time I pass them. The purple foliage reminds me of my childhood with my grandmother, thus it holds a special place within my heart.

The Stone Pine

MH-The Stone Pine, or Pineus pinea, originates from the Mediterranean region and is sometimes referred to as the Italian Stone Pine. Fittingly, it is one of the species that we see most often around Italy, also like the Italian Cypress and Olive tree. Growing to about 65 feet to sometimes close to 80 feet, this particular tree is usually wider than it is tall. Once it reaches maturity, it is about 150-200 feet across.  Starting out as bushy and spherical in its awkward adolescent years, much like middle school for most people, it reaches adulthood as a picturesque beauty with a flat, canopy-like crown. In my opinion it looks a lot like the trees from Disney’s “The Lion King,” but as Yahoo answers points out, that is possibly the Umbrella Thorn Acacia tree. As credible as that source might be, for now I’ll just leave it up to artistic interpretation.

Following the overall change from adolescence to adulthood, the needles of the pine look very different in the stages of its life. While the tree is still young, the juvenile needles are small, bushy, and usually less than an inch long. Once it matures, the needles have much sparser bundles, and are around 4-8 inches long. At a first glance it might seem that the pine tree’s only mission in life is to drop all those pointy needles and make it rain on innocent bystanders, but there is much more to this tree. The cones, which I thought were only used decoratively around Christmas time, can actually be broken apart to produce the nutritious and delicious pine nuts. These are usually used in meats, salads, and are an important ingredient in pesto sauce.  Even though they are called pine nuts, they aren’t actually nuts at all, but are really the seeds of the pine tree. It takes about 3 years for the cones to mature, and then the cones can be removed and the seeds extracted. Either you can wait until the cone opens naturally on the tree, or the more popular method to simply put them in a bag, and BTHO pinecones on a rock. If pine nuts ever become popular at A&M, I think we all know what method we would use.

Coca Plant

In class this week, we talked about beverage plants and those that can be abused. One of the plants we talked about was the coca plant (Erythroxylum coca). This plant is what the illegal substance cocaine is made from.
However, this plant is not all bad. Throughout history, the coca plant has been used in medicine. It was thought to "cure" depression and melancholy states, it was used as an anesthetic, and was added to chewing gum to treat toothaches. Because of it's mood-enhancing properties, it was also added to sodas as an alternative to alcohol (hence: Coca-Cola!) and added to cigarettes sometimes as well.
In 1914, the Harrison Narcotic Act outlawed cocaine, (even though it is incorrectly classified as a narcotic). It was wrongfully classified in the U.S. until 1970, when it was considered a controlled substance.
The world's leading producer of the coca plant is Colombia, which produces 3/4 of the world's supply alone. It is the only option for many farmers there, because the demand is so high and their other options are very limited. Farmers are upset because their government doesn't want them to grow the coca plant, but they won't assist them to grow other crops.
There are still other uses for the coca plant in practice today. Some people make tea from it, some people chew it, similar to chewing tobacco in America. This is popular in the Andean region because it appeases hunger, gives energy, reduces muscular exertion, and gives the body more oxygen control all of which are essential to life in higher altitudes. Coca tea is popular, also, because it's healthy for climbers and it helps with altitude sickness.
All in all, the coca plant has been greatly abused, but there really are some better uses for it that are beneficial rather than harmful to the body!

Tea Party

AKS: Born and raised, I am Texan through and through! Sweet tea is basically a food group in Southern cuisine... Most especially in the summertime! This morning we had a "end of the semester" party with snacks graciously provided by the managers of Santa Chiara, Sharon and Garnet! We had delicious croissants and sweet tea! We learned about tea last week in class and I would like to share some things about the origin and production of one of the South's favorite beverages. Tea originated in China and grows in tropic and subtropical regions of the world in countries like India and Sri Lanka. Harvesting tea is extensive and strenuous because all tea must be picked by hand. The best tea products come from very young leaves, so harvesters must keep their plants pruned, and look for new buds every day. A new flush on a tea plant can develop every seven to ten days! Women usually harvest the tea leaves because it takes a keen eye and delicate touch to pick the right leaves.  There are several different proccesses that produce different types of tea, but all tea starts as fresh tea leaves from the evergreen plant. Black tea, which is made by fermentation, is the tea used in sweet tea. The healthiest type of tea, green tea, does not go through the fermentation process. I felt like there was a little taste of Texas today while we were celebrating the end of finals!

Peristyles in Pompeii


            In Pompeii we were able to see all the ruins. The city had been buried under ash from the eruptions of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 A.D. Since the homes were perfectly conserved we could see the entire layout. After going through a couple of the houses I noticed a common trend. Many had atrium and peristyles with the atrium being the smaller opening at the front of the house and the peristyle, which is a columned porch with a garden inside.  The walls are usually embellished with decorative paintings and frescos. The rich were usually the ones who could afford the extravagant peristyliums. Simon Ellis reflected on the significance and said, “ the disappearance of the Roman peristyle house marks the end of the ancient world and its way of life.” The courtyard could range from simple to decadent. It could include flower, shrubs, fountains, fishponds, benches, and sculptures. The one in the picture shows an over grown garden in the center which would have not have been the case. In ancient times the gardens were some of their prized places, where they were able to show off their wealth. This was definitely one of my favorite places I visited!

Parterre In Assisi

LR: One of the last places that we traveled to as a group was a beautiful little town named Assisi. (When I say little, I mean in regards to Rome and Florence.) While we were in Assisi, we met up with our tour guide and were taken around the town to enjoy the rich history this town is known for. We ran into public ancient fountains that the women would do their laundry in and some very interesting artwork on a ceiling that led to the town brothel. We ended the day with the Saint Frances Basilica which is technically property of the Vatican, not the town of Assisi. In front of this famous church where Saint Frances is buried, there is a large area of grass. In the grass are bushes trimmed to make the shape a of a T. Throughout the town, I would find necklaces with T's on them. I was confused as to what they meant, obviously a very important aspect of the town. After our tour guide explained it to us, it all made sense. The T was the symbol of the cross. The bushes that made this artwork in the grass is called a parterre. A parterre is a French term and is a characteristic of a French gardens. It was beautiful and added so much to the beautiful garden.

After studying horticulture on this trip, I have gained a greater appreciation for the beauty of plant life throughout the world. I have thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of this trip and can't believe that it is almost time to return to Texas!!


BG: This week we took our final exam for our horticulture class.  We had to look over all of the information that we had covered so far in the class and it was amazing how much I have personally learned from the class.  Traveling through Italy I have been surprising myself with how much I have been able to recognize. When studying in the courtyard of the Santa Chiara Center, I actually recognized some of the things we had talked about, the geraniums.  The first kind I noticed was the zonal geraniums.

As you can tell by the picture, the zonal geranium has a dark circle on the leaves and even darker parts in the flower pedals itself.  The zonal geranium is native to South Africa, but now can be found all over the world.  They are found in our courtyard in pots on the ground.  They can be in different colors including red, pink, and purple.

Another type of geranium is the ivy geranium.  It is called ivy geranium because it grows downward, similar to how ivy grows.  This type of geranium can also be found in the courtyard of the Santa Chiara center.  They are known to not be too difficult to grow and are commonly found in hanging baskets and pots, which is how they are found at the center. Like the zonal geranium the colors can range from red, pink, purple, and magenta.

It has been a great trip to Italy; I can’t believe it is almost over and I hope one day I will be able to come back. 

The Uffizi Gallery: La Primavera and The Birth of Venus

         HB: We traveled yesterday to Florence for the last time, and they definitely saved the best for last. We went to two of the best museums located in Florence: the Uffizi Gallery and The Academy. The Academy has many sculptures by Michelanglo including the famous David, which is definitely a larger than life sculpture. At the Uffizi, we saw many paintings that we not only learned about in our Arts and Civilization class, but also within our International Horticulture class.
        Within the Uffiti, we saw two paintings that I was really excited to see. These paintings were by the famous Botticelli. One was La Primavera, which means Allegory of Spring and it depicts Venus in the center of the painting with Cupid hovering above. The goddess Flora is represented to the right of Venus. And the other was the Birth of Venus, which depicts Venus standing on a seashell and is perhaps one of the most recognized works of art around the world. Both of these paintings are larger than life, and just jaw-dropping.          
        One thing that you notice within both of these painting is the horticulture. These are numerous types of fruits and flowers within both of these painting and botanists have actually been able to identify every plant -within both paintings. There are flowers even located upon Flora's dress which can be identified. It is amazing that not only the figures are painted with such technical skill and details but also something as small the flowers and plants are painted with perfection and such great technical skill. Also, if you look closely at La Primavera, you can see oranges surrounding Cupid. These oranges were a symbol that this painting was done for the famous Medici family that basically ruled Florence back in the 1400's. La Primavera was painted for Lorenzo di Pierfranceso de' Medici. He was a cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent.  These painting were my absolute favorite seen in my time here in Italy and it was great to have a connection between the arts and the horticulture class I have been studying here in Italy for the past 5 weeks.  

Trekking Across Cinque Terre

EV:  We all knew, unfortunately, that our trip had to come to a close one of these days.  Before it was all gone though, a few of us decided to try our hand at hiking the famous Cinque Terre.  This is a row of five cities situated by the sea that from the first city, Riomaggiore, to the last city, Monterosso, there is a beautiful hike a long the side of a mountain.  Because it’s a long the side of a mountain, each turn and twist you take possesses a new treasure to be discovered, whether that’s the next town, an incredible view, or an interesting plant.  Since taking the international horticulture class, I have come to have a whole new appreciation for plants and it has opened my eyes to a whole new vegetative world.  

Hiking up this mountain, we would come across a vineyard on the side of a hill, getting ready for harvest in the fall, huge cactus that looked like it had cactus growing on cactus growing on cactus, with a pair of names etched into its skin in every open space, and Italian mustard flowers as far as the eye can see, making the terrain look like a gorgeous sunset.  It was the most beautiful place I have ever been to and the wildlife growing in all of the cracks and crevices up the mountain made it that much more wonderful, bringing to life the colors and surprising horticulture of Italy, a country that never fails to take my breath away.

A Lucky Find

AL: Finals have just finished which means that our time here is sadly about to end. It has been an amazing five weeks getting to learn and grow in this new environment. I am so thankful that I have had this opportunity to explore and experience new things. I think one of my favorite adventures we had during our trip was hiking through Cinque Terre. It is an area made up of five little towns and there is a gorgeous hike you can take along the coast. On my hike I started noticing some of the plants we have been learning about in our Horticulture class. One plant that stuck out was the artichoke. I had never seen one in person before and so I was shocked at how pretty the flower was. It the United States artichokes are mainly grown for commercial use so they are hard to find. Usually when you think about an artichoke you do not associate it with the word beautiful but it really was. It has a very vivid purple color that I love. Artichokes are native to the Mediterranean and are used in various food dishes. At home I am used to using artichokes to make dip but in Italy we have seen it in pizza and pasta a lot. Italy is actually one of the largest producers of artichokes. There are many different varieties of artichokes grown around the world. One fun fact is that frost is supposed to enhance the “nutty “ flavor of artichokes. So next time you are in the kitchen try experimenting with artichokes, they make a great addition to many meals!  

Olive Oil in Religion

The olive tree shown above is located in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is said this is where Jesus went to pray.

KM: As I was reviewing notes for my Horticulture final, I kept in mind my last blog topic. I wanted to go out with a bang and do something that interested me beyond researching a plant. Growing up Catholic, with most formal meals, or in special cases, we would often pull out a goblet and fill it with red wine, along with a vile of oil. I never put too much thought into the oil that was in the container, but I knew it had been blessed. After another quick look through my notes, and connecting what Dr. Lombardini had previously taught us, I realized it was more than likely a form of olive oil. We learned that olive oil is often used in many religions and cultures. At first, this was a strange and distant thought because I had only ever imagined consuming olive oil orally. Though, I know that my family has used it several times to bless each other. It is said that 1400 years ago, Muhammad advised his followers to use this to anoint their bodies and to apply it topically. It is also commonly used when Christians receive their first baptism. I easily related to these first two ideas, because my family has often gone around the table, using the oil to mark the sign of the cross on each other’s foreheads to “bless” each other in a spiritual connection to God. However, I never knew that kings of the Greeks and Jews also used it on the athletes who have won competition to anoint them. Also in our notes, it is said that under Extreme Unction, olive oil can be used on dead people to increase health for the soul and in hopes of the body. These two ideas were new to me, and fun to learn because I never would have expected olive oil to be used in anything other than our cooking we do at home.

Learning all off this was not only an educational experience. Because my family has used this oil so many times and for so long, I really enjoyed gaining a deeper understanding of what the oil we used to bless each other is. I understand the process of how it was made, where it comes from, and various purposes. I believe that the next time we use this oil, I will have a greater appreciation knowing that it isn’t just any oil blessed, but one that has been used for centuries for various purposes.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Our Lady of Lourdes: The Vatican Gardens Revisited


                As I was looking through my pictures on my camera trying to search for the perfect topic for my last blog, I happened upon a picture that had completely slipped my mind. It was a picture of the replica grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, which resides near the top of the Vatican Gardens. Although we only were able to see it for a brief second, since we were heading to the rose garden at the very top, I was amazed at the absolute beauty and simplicity of the grotto. As a Catholic, the story of Our Lady of Lourdes is famously powerful and profound.

                It all started in Lourdes, France on February 11th 1858, when a teenage peasant girl, named Bernadette Soubirous, heard a “lady” speak to her when she was gathering firewood with her sisters near the cave of Massabielle. Bernadette describes the “lady” as “dressed all in white, apart from the blue belt fastened around her waist and the golden yellow roses, one on each foot, the colour of her rosary”. For the next year, Bernadette returned almost daily to the cave, where it is reported that seventeen appearances occurred. Eventually the whole town heard about it and cast her off as a lunatic while her parents beat her for telling such ridiculous lies. Even the parish priest was not convinced. However, on February 24th, the Blessed Virgin Mary, who later revealed herself to Bernadette on March 25th by proclaiming “ I am the Immaculate Conception”, told Bernadette to go into the cave and dig in the ground. Doing so on her command, Bernadette confusedly dug. After a few minutes a spring gushed forth from where she had been digging. To this day the spring is still flowing in the cave (grotto) in Lourdes. Over the years there have been countless miraculous cures attributed to the pilgrims who drank from the spring. Of course both those in the government and the Church were skeptical, yet the doctors and scientists who had examined these cases have been baffled, not being able to explain many of these miraculous cures.  Bernadette was later canonized a Saint and the grotto of Lourdes has become one of the most visited pilgrim sites on the earth.

So there is the condensed story of Our Lady of Lourdes, but what does this have to do with horticulture? Well, as it turns out, the replica grotto that is found within the Vatican Gardens has an absolutely breathtaking vine species that really makes the grotto seem “alive”. The vine, Parthenocissus tricuspidata, is commonly referred to as either American Ivy or Boston Ivy. Although it can be misleading, the Boston Ivy is not a true Ivy but is actually a species found in the same family as the grape. Native to Asia, the Boston Ivy is a deciduous flowering vine with simple palmately lobed leaves. The vine is planted as a climbing ornamental and will flower, however the plant is known mainly for its dense foliage. Interestingly enough, the vine secretes calcium carbonate from its tendrils, which helps it adhere firmly to surfaces, particularly stone walls or caves. As you could imagine, the Boston Ivy is popular in the city of Boston, Massachusetts where it is commonly grown on the sides of houses. One of the reasons as to why Bostonians, and others alike, enjoy growing such species is that the dense foliage of the ivy helps reduce electrical costs. Whether grown on the side of a house or in a grotto, the Boston Ivy is a spectacular specimen that is sure to catch the eye of every passer bye.

The factual and well documented occurrence of Our Lady of Lourdes speaks directly to the soul of every Catholic and when looking at the replica, with its beautifully engulfing Boston Ivy, it feels like I am in the actual grotto in France standing side by side with Saint Bernadette.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Fresh Fava Beans


Before coming to Italy, I was very unfamiliar with fava beans and had definitely never eaten them. The first time we were on our own for food was very intimidating because of the language barrier.  Luckily Dr. Lombardini ended up choosing the same restaurant as Michael and I. When the starters came out, the first plate contained a pile of large green pods, fava beans. I was pleasantly surprised that I liked the taste of them.

            Fava beans, Vicia faba, are native to Africa but are produced and cultivated in other areas of the world. This resilient legume is very easy to grow and manage because of its ability to survive in harsh climates and soil with high levels of salt. This crop is also beneficial to keep in a garden because as a legume, the plant can keep the soil fertile and healthy.   
It's refreshing to focus on a plant that is not very popular in the U.S. and to see the connection between this legume and the Italian culture. 
The use of fava beans dates back to prehistoric times and these seeds were one of the few beans available to people in the ancient world. In Italy, fava beans are quite popular because they have been grown, eaten, and sold here for so long. These legumes are used in salad, soups, pastes, and fillings  depending on your world location. They are available fresh in most restaurants and markets in springtime and early summer.

Hydrageas Overtaking Italy

HCL: In Capri, we came across a beautiful shrub of hydrangeas. I thought there was no way they could not be real but, sure enough, as we came closer we realized the magnificent natural beautify of the tree looking plant. Allison and I called it our Christmas tree in June because of all the striking colors. I was taken back by the structure they had formed with the many plants to make it look larger then a normal hydrangea plant could possibly grow. The gardener must have had much skill in hiding his container and materials to make it stay. That is one of the number one rules in floral design. After seeing that shrub, I was surprised by all the hydrangeas I saw in different towns. Wondering how they could flourish in so many different areas of Italy, I searched online for my answer. 

Hydrangeas grow in moist soil and but can grow in hot climates as long as they are planted in the shade. The intensity of the color is based on the pH of the soil. Because the plant’s colors (first picture) are very intense, we know the pH of the soil is more acidic. I found many of these plants in the Boboli gardens which was no where close to the ocean. Also in the Boboli gardens, I found a hydrangea that had only a few petals (as you can see in the second picture) instead of the full round petals. They were so interesting and quite beautiful with their petals fluttering alone in the wind. They were my favorite plants of the whole trip, especially with all their different colors and always so full of life. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Sensory Overload

A hotel lavander garden on the island of Capri
 AJ      Take a stroll through any Italian village and your senses will be overwhelmed.  You see the rolling hills filled with olives and grapes, hear the chorus of birds overhead, taste the dry red wine, touch the rough ancient walls,  and smell, you smell everything! One smell that I can never escape here is the lavender.  It is planted everywhere from big bunches on formal gardens, to small pots on a porch, the Italians love lavender.

Lavender, Lavandula angustifolia, has deep roots within the Italian culture.  In ancient times, Romans would place bunches of the flower in thermal baths, made perfumes and oils, and even made a disinfectant out of the plant. In the recent past it was used within wardrobes and drawers to keep moths away from clothes. It prefers to grow in dry areas, such as stoney spots, that are well drained with lots of sun.  It has a shrub like growth about 24" tall, silver foliage, and flowers in late spring and summer.  A native to the Mediterranean, it has around 25 different species, and is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae).  I was more than excited to discover one of my favorite herbs was so fundamental in Italy. Now, to get back to Texas and see if mom has managed to kill mine while I have been here...

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Olive Oil Adulteration

Unripe olives.                                                             
                                                                                                         Us at La Pievuccia, in front of the olive trees.

HJ: Before coming to Italy, my experience with olive oil consisted of having it and balsamic vinegar on the table at high end Italian restaurants. Here, I've learned that surprisingly few restaurants leave it out for dipping bread in, but a large portion of the dishes we've eaten thus far have been cooked and served in olive oil. This past week in class we learned all about olives, olive oil processing/production, and the health benefits of olive oil. It has been determined that olive oil satisfies hunger and leads to consuming fewer calories, and it can also decrease bad cholesterol and rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer. With all of these things in mind, I was really excited to receive the extra virgin olive oil I had ordered from La Pievuccia, the Agriturismo we visited earlier in the trip. I have even been planning ways to incorporate olive oil into my diet upon returning home. However, a few days ago I was reading, a U.S. comedy website that I frequent when avoiding getting work done. Funnily enough, I stumbled upon an article called The Six Creepiest Lies the Food Industry is Feeding You. Number one on the list was olive oil, and the entirety of that section of the article was devoted to the theory that the majority of olive oil we get in the U.S. is greatly diluted by sunflower oil due to the machinations of the Italian mob and their olive oil piracy schemes.

Naturally, I didn't take a comedy website at their word (although the articles are known for being about weird true things) and did some research of my own. Funnily enough, the dilution of olive oil does illegally occur quite frequently in Europe, in particular in Spain and Italy, and the process is called adulteration. Researcher Tom Mueller from The New Yorker estimates that only about 40% of olive oil labeled extra virgin actually meets that specification due to adulteration. In 1981, rapeseed oil adulterated with an industrial lubricant was passed off as olive oil in Spain, resulting in the deaths of over 700 people. Fortunately, today most adulteration only passes off inferior but safe oils as extra virgin olive oil. Because of this large level of corruption, Italy attempted to pass a law in 2007 requiring olive oil claiming to be Italian to have the farm and press of origin on the label. The EU disagreed with this law, stating that such requirements should be voluntary, and today the law states that olive oil may be sold as Italian even if it only contains a fraction of olive oil produced in Italy. Although an interesting allegation, I was unable to find any information linking the Italian mob to this adulteration process.

My newfound knowledge of olive oil adulteration has complicated my idea of incorporating olive oil into my daily diet upon returning home from Italy. I want to work to be healthier, but I'm not equipped with the skills to determine what is real and what isn't, especially if companies can label their oil as Italian olive oil even if it contains only a small amount of olive oil produced in Italy. I wish I had ordered more than two small bottles from La Pievuccia.

Ancient Roman Concession Stands

SJ: During our week in Rome we went to see the Colosseum. As we walked through the arched passageways and up the stairs, I could not help feeling a slight bit like I was walking to an Aggie football game. Even centuries after the Colosseum was built in 80 A.D., it still has an energizing effect on visitors. In addition to game day spirit, we also found in some of the displays, evidence of concession stands during ancient games. Today, we often have processed foods, and soft drinks for snacks during games, but the viewers of the gladiator fights and mock sea battles had peaches, olives, pine nuts, cherries, walnuts, melons, plums, dates, and grapes for their game day snacks. Already, many of these crops had spread outside of their origin. Many originated in Asia, but others such as the olive originated closer to Rome in modern day Turkey. As people moved, they brought with them familiar crops as food and as trade, so all of these crops provided the Romans nourishment during the games. Seeds and pits of these different fruits were somehow preserved through the centuries and found by archaeologist today, along with glasses, plates, and spoons used to consume their snacks. Much like mountains of styrofoam cups and wrappers are left after the crowds leave modern stadiums, the romans also left their trash in the stands which has provided great insight into the games from the people’s perspective.

Olives from the Tree to the Shelves

SJ: In International Horticulture this week we learned about olive trees, olive oil, and olive harvesting just in time for our day trip to Assisi which is home to many olive wood shops. Many of these shops sell kitchen utensils such as wooden spoons, forks, bowls, cutting boards, and even pizza cutters, all carved in the smooth warmly colored and characteristically dark veined olive wood. Olive trees are an important resource in Italy because of the many products that can be produced from the crop. From the courtyard at the Santa Chiara study center, we can see an orchard of the silver-green trees nearby as well as a patchwork of olive orchards on the mountains surrounding the valley. The olives are not ripe yet in Castiglion Fiorentino and the fruits are still only slightly larger than the head of a pin. But, when harvest season comes in the fall, depending on the size of the business, the olives may be gathered with machinery, or a family may gather together to help with the harvest using rakes to pull the olives from the branches of the trees to be collected on nets arranged on the ground below. These olives can then be ground and squeezed to produce olive oil. While Italy does not produce as large a quantity of olive oil as Spain, Italy is known for its higher quality of oil, or extra virgin olive oil. Olive oil is also necessary in the maintenance of olive wood products to keep the wood from drying out and cracking, so a regular treatment of olive oil was encouraged by many of the shops in Assisi.

The salad of Capri

AKS: As our last days heat up, this Italian summer is reminding me more and more of a typical Texas summer! We have tried to stay cool by closing up the windows and doors to block out the heat but it hasn’t been enough… so we’ve moved on to eating the most summer-friendly foods! Insalate Caprese is my favorite summer dish in all of Italian cuisine! This salad is so simple; it truly epitomizes the attitude of “less is more.” Caprese salad is said to have originated from the beautiful island of Capri in the 1950’s and contains the three colors of the Italian flag. Caprese salad is made with tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil, salt and pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. Traditional Italian recipes call for the freshest ingredients, which is perfect in the summer months because it is tomato season! The delicious tomatoes we have consumed while being here at Santa Chiara have confirmed my love for the fruit, although I know tomatoes of the same quality are hard to find in the States. In America, traditional recipes from exotic places are usually changed and “upgraded” to meet the American demand to have the newest and best product. Some Caprese salads in the States may have oregano and parsley, thinly sliced zucchini or cucumbers, and balsamic vinegar drizzled over. This mentality undermines the appeal of such a simple and tasty dish. I like my Caprese with a bit of olive oil and a pinch of salt! I will be on a mission to find a worthy tomato in Texas to make this wonderful Italian summer salad while remembering all the Italian adventures I have experienced this summer.

Olive Trees & Olive Wood

AG: This past week in class we learned about olive trees and how many benefits these trees have. It seemed pretty much perfect that we learned about this topic this week, because it related so much with the city we went to, Assisi. Assisi was a small town compared to many that we have gone to, but it was still very beautiful. The Basilica of St. Francis is in this city, along with a few other churches, and plenty of little shops. In this town they had many shops with olive wood souvenirs, many religious items along with a “T” shaped designed cross that I was unfamiliar with. It was there that I learned that the “T” shaped crosses were made like that to show the actual representation of the cross that Jesus was crucified on. Aside from the “T” shaped crosses what caught my attention the most was precisely the olive trees and the olive wood shops. Perhaps it was because it was material that we had recently learned, or maybe it was the fact that the objects made with the wood were simply so smooth and beautiful. It amazes me how much a simple olive tree can do, and how many resources can be taken out of olive trees. Olive trees are very important in Italy because a simple tree can give olives, lead into a production of olive oil, or even be used to make from simple things like kitchen utensils. Outside the little shop where I bought my olive wood items from were actually a few olive trees and as you entered the shop you many different items like, olive wood bowls, spoons, napkin holders, and many other items. Assisi might have been a small town, but it definitely exceeded my expectations on lifestyle, resources, and its beauty.   

Rome: Palatine Hill

AG: Last week our group went and spent 3 days in Rome, and it was certainly a great experience. Some of the few places we went to see were churches, the Vatican Gardens, the Colosseum, and the Palatine Hill. The Palatine Hill, which is right above the Roman forum, is known to be one of the most ancient parts of Rome and the center most of the Seven Hills of Rome. At the Palatine Hill there were many areas where they had decorated what used to be water fountains with white, purple, and light blue flowers. I could not tell exactly how they had designed the flower colors, but a pattern was certainly there. Around the hill there were plenty of beautiful trees, and it was easy to recognize the stone pine tree that we have basically seen all over Italy. It was also at the Palatine Hill that we were able to see what would be considered a true Jasmine flower (Jasminum officinale) compared to the false Jasmine flowers (Trachelospermum jasminoides) we have seen in other places in Italy, such as in Castiglion Fiorentino. The difference between a true and a false Jasmine they are from different genus and family (Oleaceae in case of the true Jasmine, Apocynaceae for the false Jasmine). The true Jasmine is for the most part a bushy shrub or a climbing vine and is non-poisonous. The false Jasmine on the other hand is considered too poisonous for human consumption. This was some of the things of a Jasmine flower that I had completely no idea about, and it was great getting informed of it.

Porcini Mushrooms

In class this week, we talked about many specific kinds of edible plants grown in Italy, from fruits/vegetables to nuts to herbs. One of the things we talked about was the porcini mushroom, the most expensive and in-demand mushroom around.
The word "porcini" translates literally to "little pig". There are a few theories as to why this is. One is that the mushroom grows in such a way that it looks like a little pig coming out of the ground. Another is that people used to use pigs to find mushrooms and truffles, so they simply named it after their method of search. It belongs to the Boletus genus, and is the only species in its genus. There is more than one variety, but they are all the same species (porcini).
The porcini mushroom is also very expensive because they are fairly rare. They can be found only in certain areas, but it is said that chestnut woods are the best place to get them in the wild. To harvest them, you never pull them straight out of the ground, you always cut them at the base, being careful to make a clean cut and not to bruise it. Then, they must be transported in a basket so that they are less likely to get crushed, they can breathe better, and the spores can drop back to the ground so that more mushrooms will grow!
When a group of us went to Arezzo this weekend, we went into a little shop and saw some dried porcini mushrooms; they were just as expensive as we were told! (see picture)

"Every Rose Has It's Thorn"

MH-One of the most widely recognized flowers is the rose. Coming from family Rosaceae, there are more than 100 species making it difficult to pinpoint a specific species with an untrained eye. Most species have leaves on alternate sides of the stem with small leaflets. Except for a minute amount, most species are deciduous, meaning that they lose their flowers and leaves during certain seasons. Basic wild roses consist of 5 petals with 5 sepals underneath, but different varieties like hybrids might have larger numbers. One widely known and disliked feature of roses is the painful prick you feel when trying to tend to your rose bush. These protrusions are technically called “prickles.” Roses use their prickles to help ward off curious animals from damaging the bushes. The difference between prickles and thorns is that prickles are cortex and epidermis extensions, while thorns are modified stems. But, I guess Brett Michaels thought that "Every Rose Has It's Prickle," just didn't flow quite as well. 

The most popular use of roses today is their role as ornamental plants. Heavily hybridized over the years, these roses are bred for their beautiful colors and petals. Unfortunately, this has just about led to the extinction of the famous rose scent in these types of roses. While they may not smell as nice as other roses, they are quite beautiful to look at. With brilliant colors ranging from reds and pinks to oranges, yellows, and whites, each is known to have a specific meaning. Reds standing for love and beauty, and white meaning purity and innocence, are both very popular for weddings.

On our journeys, roses have been just about anywhere you might look. It seems that every citizen has a rose bush or two peeking out of his or her fence. Even on the side of the road, rose bushes line the streets in unexpected places. The roses pictured were blooming on one of the twisty roads near Santa Chiara. There are so many types and colors of roses here scattered about, it feels like you could hardly run into the same variety twice!

Fun day in Arezzo


Yesterday a few of us went to Arezzo for the day. We spent a wonderful time walking around and as we ventured away from the square we stumbled upon a local park.  I think it was the Bosco di Sargiano Park. There was a nice shaded area we strolled through and then found this tree featured in the picture above which to climb. It was so beautiful there and the shade was comforting when compared to the scorching sun we have had the past couple days.
            After we strolled the streets, we came across a store selling jams, fruit preserves, dried meats and fresh cheeses. Something that had always confused me was the difference between jams and fruit preserves. Jams are made with the whole fruit and are usually crushed but contain fruit pulp. Fruit preserves have huge chunks of fruit in them preserved in gelled syrup. Marmalade was also introduced. It is a type of fruit preserve thought to have been created in 1561 by a physician for the Queen of Scots to keep her sickness at bay by crushing sugar and orange together. In both jam and preserves, the amount of sugar added varies according to the ripeness of the fruit. At 104 degrees the acid and the pectin react with sugar and the jam can then cool.  Jams and preserves were first made in the Middle East because cane sugar was grown here naturally.  Pretty neat!!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Pomegranate: The Ancient Fruit

The connection between art and horticulture is becoming more and more apparent as the weeks go on. We have been shown endless amounts of artwork but one painting spoke especially loud to me, Madonna of the Pomegranate by Sandro Botticelli (1487). In this painting the Virgin Mary is holding Jesus with angels surrounding her, but the main focal point is the pomegranate that Jesus is holding.
Pomegranates are present in many paintings throughout history, and most definitely in Italian art. This ancient fruit was used in many Renaissance paintings to symbolize abundance, fertility, and hope. The pomegranate, Punica granatum, is classified as a berry that develops on a shrub or small tree. Native to Iran, in the Fertile Crescent, the pomegranate has spread and is now cultivated in numerous regions of the world, including the Mediterranean.
Along with being an attractive and historic fruit, pomegranates are also useful and serve many purposes. There are many recipes that incorporate pomegranate, but this berry can also be eaten by itself by cracking the outside to expose the seed coverings, arils. Medicinal uses of the berry include traditional remedies that date back to ancient times. Nutritional benefits include the consumption of vitamin C, potassium, fiber, unsaturated oil, and micronutrients.
This coming week we are traveling back to Florence to visit the Uffizi Gallery, where Madonna of the Pomegranate resides. Seeing the painting in person instead of on a blurry, poor lit slide will be an amazing experience. It is truly remarkable to see the importance of horticulture in this painting and because of it, I now have a new appreciation for art and all of its intricate details.  

Sweet Juiciness

CC: One of my favorite fruits that are present in the cuisine at Santa Chiara is the Kiwifruit (Actinidia deliciosa). Although I grew up eating this yummy fruit I did not realize that its introduction to the western hemisphere was quite recent. Kiwis, a woody vine, are native to southern China, they were brought to New Zealand and propagated by seed in 1906 and bore fruit by 1910. Commercial production of the berry’s began in the 1940’s, but export markets did not open until after World War II. Today, Italy is the number one producer in the world weighing in at 410 thousand metric tons. This is astounding due to the fact that all of the harvesting in Italy is done with manual labor. I was surprised to find out that Italy was the top producer, because naturally I assumed it would be a region of Asia. The kiwifruit that we have found on the table here in Italy surpass the quality that we consume in the United States. Fresh Italian kiwi exudes sweet juiciness leaving your mouth with the desire for its next encounter. In addition to the berry’s delicious taste it also offers a variety of health benefits such as high levels of Vitamin C (higher than the average orange), slightly less potassium than a whole banana, and its skin is rich in flavonoid antioxidants. As I grew older my desire for kiwi subsided, however from this experience my taste has returned and when I arrive home I know that the kiwi with once again be incorporated into my daily diet.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Italian Amber Waves of Grain

MC:  As we were driving towards the town of Assisi on our tour bus last Wednesday I noticed that there were acres and acres of dead grass. However, after about thirty minutes into the drive I realized that this was not dead grass, but fields of wheat. It was interesting that just three or four weeks ago these fields were lush and green and now, right as the temperatures are beginning to soar, they have turned a beautiful golden brown. As it turns out the variety of wheat grown is known as Triticum Durum, or just durum for short. This species of wheat is the only tetraploid species that is widely used in commercial production and originated through genetic hybridization. The word durum is Latin for “hard” and is properly named since it is the hardest of all wheat species. When milled, durum wheat makes an excellent flour for pasta and bread making. For high quality pasta and bread, the endosperm of the durum can be coarsely ground and purified into semolina flour.
Italians are known worldwide for their delicious pastas and breads so it is no coincidence that there are over 1.5 million hectares of durum wheat planted in Italy with around 75% of all production residing within the central region of Italy. Every time we leave the medieval walls of Santa Chiara I notice the spectacular wheat fields with their golden heads wisping in the wind. It seems that everyone grows wheat, from the self-sufficient farmer all the way to the commercial producer. Italians have placed wheat wherever they have room, whether it is right next to their grapevines or directly in their backyards. Durum wheat is not only a very important staple crop but provides a striking contrast to the Italian landscape; without it the Italian culture just would not be the same. 

The Medici Orangerie at the Boboli Garden

AJ: The Medici family had the incredible fortune of being fabulously wealthy.  With this wealth they built magnificent palaces.  Within the walls of these estates they flaunted their wealth with gardens.  One of these estates, Pitti Palace, boasts one of the most fabulous gardens one can explore, the Boboli Garden.  Citrus was a beloved fruit of the Italians, however due to the climate of Florence, and most of the northern half of the country, they were not able to grow subtropical fruits like citrus, unless protected from the cold during the winter.  This is where the garden orangerie came into play.  The spacious stone building was more a less a greenhouse that protected not only the oranges, but many species of plants during the cold winter months.  The orangerie was equipped with fireplaces inside to help maintain a more even temperature within the walls. This building is still functional today and is utilized by staff still to keep plants during winter months, but is also used as an event center.  The amazement of the orangerie does not stop there.  Outside there is a dazzling flower garden.  It twists and turns, there are arches covered in roses, and pots with the most wonderful smelling lavender. It begs to be explored and experienced by any plant lover.  I imagine that at night it could be lit and the perfect place for a romantic stroll with the one you love and the perfect place to get down on one knee and pop the question...