Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Amphora

The Etruscans have been a constant discussion topic since we arrived in Castiglion Fiorentino. Their advanced techniques and practices continue to amaze me. On Wednesday, May 30, 2012, we visited the Archaeological Museum in the city of Cortona. While walking through the various exhibits, I spotted an object that looked very familiar, an amphora. In our second lecture, we discussed and observed how the Egyptians, Greeks, and the Etruscans used amphorae to preserve, store, and transport some of their resources and products.  An amphora is a clay, vase-like piece of pottery that has two handles on opposite sides of the mouth. The container stored and protected goods like olives, grapes, oil, and wine. One of the main distinguishing features of an amphora compared to a typical ancient pot is the tapered base. This unique base was buried in the earth to keep the contents inside at their optimum temperature, seeing as the ancient people did not have a means of refrigeration. The pottery also kept the juices and liquids from getting spoiled by the sun, dirt, and other elements. The shape of the container also made it easier to transport over long distances. Although the pottery could not stand on its own, the ancient people would string ropes through the handles of the vases to transfer them from place to place. This practice shows how advanced and  impressive  the ancient people were. Their techniques are irreplaceable building blocks for modern day society. Some of their innovations are still used today with little or no change of the process. I can’t wait to learn and discover more about the founders of this beautiful country. I believe they are going to keep telling us more and more about their ways as time passes and more history is revealed.


AL:Today, we walked to a vineyard at the La Pievuccia Agriturismo, which was about a thirty-minute walk away from the Santa Chiara center. The vineyard is a family-run operation. They do not only produce wine but have also created a beautiful place for families and couples to visit. The most intriguing part of the vineyard is that everything grown there is organic and all natural. Being a vegetarian, I love anything natural and organic, so the vineyard was very intriguing.  When growing organic crops there are many stimulations that the farmer must adhere to. Mainly organic food means that the producers do not use any pesticides while growing the food. The owner of the vineyard described how he lets the grapes grow naturally without the help of chemicals. A bonus to not using pesticides is that the production cost is less because they are letting the plants grow naturally. The owner also explained how when plants are sprayed with pesticides the chemicals seep into the plant and the consumer ends up eating them. To counteract harmful diseases the vineyard has been spraying their plants with copper. Instead of seeping into the plant, copper only creates a film on top of the grape leaves therefore not harming the plant or the consumer. Organic growing is a much healthier way to approach food.

Around Santa Chiara

As soon as we arrived at the Santa Chiara study center, I fell in love. Not only are the views fantastic, but the center itself is beautiful, as well! You can see and feel the history every time you look around. Everything feels so genuine here; as if the truth is written on the walls, you just have to look into and between them to find it all. A lot of what makes this place wonderful is the green! Everywhere you look, there are plants growing! Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) is covering the walls, there are plants growing throughout the courtyard, and looking over the balcony, all you can see is green! The little white flower is part of the Star Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) plant growing on the staircase outside, and they smell wonderful! I love to sit next to them and read, so that I can take in the views, smells, and overall feel of Italy. The vines growing on the wall in the second picture make the wall even more beautiful. I think it really adds to the beauty. So far, I've thoroughly enjoyed myself, and I've already learned so much! What a fantastic opportunity this is.

Agriturismo La Pievuccia

BG: Today the entire group went on an excursion to La Pievuccia, an Agriturismo which is a brief walk away from the amazing Santa Chiara Center in Castiglion Fiorentino where we currently live.  We received an amazing tour from the owner, who's grandfather owned the vineyard when he was a lithe boy.  He showed us the vineyards and different places where they grew the grapes for the wine, and other vegetables used in cooking.  Some of the vegetables that he showed us included asparagus and tomatoes.  A requirement of an agriturismo is that is serves food to guests that was made from the raw materials that have been produced at the farm itself.  We were fortunate enough to be able to eat lunch at the agriturismo which was a 5 course meal that included sampling of different wines which were made at the vineyard.  One of the cool things that we were lucky enough to see was the cellar where the making of the wine took place.  We were able to see where the wine is fermented, where they put in the grapes, and where they store the wine. Below is a picture of one of the rooms, on the sides you can see where the wine is stored, and in the middle you can see the machine that they pour the grapes into. 

The beautiful roses of Italia

SS: Thanks to the temperate, balmy climate roses are able to flourish. As we walked down the shaded cobble stone street it is easy to notice the roses that cascade down the sides of the gates and fences that surround these Italian villas. The sweet smell fills the air and the beauty only complements the renaissance feel that many Italian gardens behind the stone fence offer.One of the most impressive qualities of the Italian roses was the size. These roses were about twice the size of some of the roses from the United States. The climate is what helps them thrive. They are provided with enough sun yet are offered the shade from the many trees here in Tuscany. The love of these flowers extends far past Roman times. Some popular flowers include the Iris, Tuscan poppy, and Dahlia. Most Italian gardens have a water feature in the middle such as a fountain. In ancient times this provided relief from the heat of the day and served as irrigation to some of the plants. The pathway is made of cool stone.and hedges are often used in Italian gardens to divide the garden into sections. Sometimes each section would have a landscape all its own!

Authentic Italian Gelato

LR: Gelato is something I had been anticipating from the moment I received my acceptance to this study abroad program. Gelato is enjoyed by numerous people in the town of Castiglion Fiorentino. It is an easy way to relax and enjoy the smooth, sweet taste of the equivalent of ice cream in Italy. My first gelato I devoured while in Italy is pictured above. The flavor is called stracciatella. They allowed us to sample as many as we wanted before we made the huge decision of what kind to buy. Although American's believe that they have the equivalent, there is no comparison to that of authentic Italy. Although many people think that ice cream and gelato are similar, there are many differences. Gelato is served at a slightly warmer temperature, making it less frozen than that of ice cream. Personally, I enjoy this attribute due to my sensitive teeth. Surprisingly, gelato is denser than ice cream because it is whipped with less air. Also, gelato contains 30 percent air while ice cream is whipped with 50 percent air. This Gelato also contains less fat (whoop!) than ice cream.  This is probably good because it is difficult to resist getting more than one scoop! Due to the lesser amount of fat found in gelato, it doesn't have quite as thick of a coat on the inside of your mouth when consuming it. Whether you prefer gelato or ice cream does not really matter, it is the experience of sitting outside, enjoying the beautiful views of Castiglion Fiorentino with your new best friends.

Tour around Castiglion Fiorentino

EV: We have been on many adventures already in the little time that we have been in Castiglion Fiorentino and all of them have been incredible.  I have never taken an agriculture class before and so far, because of this class, I have become so much more aware of the vegetation around me.
On Sunday, May, 27th, a local man from Castiglion Fiorentino took us on a historical tour of the town.  We got to go in a couple of old churches around town and they were so incredible and full of history.  He explained to us how the town has changed over the past centuries and took us through all of the districts of the town.  It was a great experience to get to learn the history and to hear the quirky little side stories about the various buildings.  One in particular that I thought was really interesting was about a fig tree that was growing on the top of the bell tower of one of the old, closed churches.  According to the story, the townspeople of Castiglion Fiorentino have been cutting this tree down from the top of the bell tower for years and years.  The tree, however, kept growing back no matter how many times they tried to get rid of it. It is still growing on the top of that bell tower to this day and it is really cool! The locals take it in as part of the character and history of this charming Tuscan town that sits on the top of a hill.

The vineyards at La Pievuccia Agriurismo

HCL: You may think that these Italians are lazy when you see all the problematic grass growing in the vineyard here of La Pievuccia Agriturismo, but actually the grass is used for many different things. In Texas, we know that the grass/weeds steal the water from our plants and so we pull them out. But here, during the rainy season the grass and the plants share the excess water, which means that the grass can be used for other reasons. The grass acts as an organic fertilizer for the grape. It also allows for oxygen to get into the soil through the root canals in the ground. Then, when fungus and insects come to feed, they can feed on the grass instead of the vines that are lower to the ground. It does not protect the vines entirely but it does help with the problem. When the dry season comes and the water becomes scarce that is when the grass is finally cut so that the plants are not competing for the little water. As you can see, even with the grass, the vineyard is the one of the most beautiful places I have seen so far on our trip. Even the Castle of Montecchio can be seen in the background of this photo. The lunch provided here at the winery/bed and breakfast was my favorite meal thus far our trip. DELICIOUS! 

The Rolling Tuscan Landscape of Castiglion Fiorentino

MC: The Rolling Tuscan Landscape of Castiglion Fiorentino

As we departed Santa Chiara on our first horticultural excursion through the Tuscan countryside, I took note of the absolute beauty that surrounded this quiet and seemingly undisturbed fortified town. There were multiple sights that caught my eye, from the wild barley and oats wisping in the wind along the rocky hillside to the blood red roses that were uniformly situated along the cobble stone path that led to the Chiesa Collegiata.  Nevertheless, there were three particular things that captured my full attention: the wine grapes, olive groves, and the plethora of ginormous Italian cypress trees that tower erect above all other foliage. This blog will focus on the latter.
 The Italian cypress tree, Cupressus sempervirens, originated in Persia but has been extensively cultivated in the Tuscan region of Italy, particularly by the Etruscan tribe. Interestingly enough, the reason why the Etruscan people had such an admiration and even a mystical connection to this tree is due to the fact that the Italian cypress will not lose its leaves during the winter and has a life span of approximately 2,000 years. In the eyes of the Etruscans this supernatural tree, when planted around the Necropolis, would help ensure a safe passage of the dead into the afterlife.  With such a rich history that dates back thousands of years, it is no wonder as to why the cypress tree has become a symbol of Tuscany.
Fast forwarding to today, the Italian cypress remains a prominent fixture in the Tuscan landscape.  As such, they are intensively cultivated and are readily available for purchase on the market. As it turns out the Italian cypress has two forms, although it is one specific variety. The form that comes to the mind of many and the form that is most sought after is the one that has a tall and slender columnar shape. While the least preferred form has a scraggly shape that branches out like an unattended Christmas tree. The difference is all in the genetics. The gene that regulates the overall shape and appearance can either be expressed as a dominant or recessive trait. Unfortunately, the dominant trait, which happens to be the most often expressed, leads to the scraggly and non-uniform shape, while the recessive trait leads to the highly prized columnar shape. Due to the fact that the primary factor involved in determining the final shape of the tree is based on genetics, propagators in the past have had little choice but to plant rows and rows of these cypress trees and let them grow large enough to observe what form each one will take. Thus it may take the planting of many acres to acquire a relatively small amount of the symbolic tree. With the knowledge we have today, growers are able to propagate clonally using a variety of techniques, which helps ensure that the Italian cypress will remain a constant sight found throughout the cascading hills of Tuscany.  

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


CC: Recently we took a walk down the beautiful endless hills of Castiglion Fiorentino and we noticed a grapevine growing on a maple tree. The Etruscan practice is called ‘Testucchio’ which was created so that the maple trees would give the grapevines adequate support resulting in the correct physiological response of growing upward. This primitive practice dates back to the Etruscan times and was prevalent until about 50 years ago when it was replaced with a wire and post training system. Although this practice was successful it left room for improvement. A few concerns that I observed as a horticulturist were the two root systems competing for nutrients and sun light, high maintenance in regards to pruning both plants simultaneously, and the time it would take for the maple trees to reach a useful height. This practice is one of the many traces that the Etruscan people left behind that indicated their simple yet advanced civilization. Italian landscapes are breathtaking and full of history. I look forward to expanding my understanding of the past so I am able to compare it to present day horticultural practices.


KM: Walking through Castiglion Fiorentino a few days ago, I was amazed at the beauty in not only the people, but also the landscape. There are so many different historical monuments available to the eye, along with some you must go walking to find. As we explored the town, I was continually in awe at the beauty in the flowers I saw. One that stuck out from all the others was the pink rose pictured above. After some research, I found that in Tuscany, the rose blooms in May. This is possible because there tends to be an abundant rainfall. The climate provides ample sunlight and extremely fertile soils. I was impressed by not only the vivid colors in this particular flower, but the surrounding buds that are springing out of the vine. The flowers surrounding the larger one have not bloomed. In order for this to occur, the buds must break for the flower to expand. Though their origin does not have a set date in history, roses have been an important part of the Italian culture along with the heavily Catholic population. Catholic Italians honor the Virgin Mary through the rose. Though the rose is not my favorite flower, I am glad I chose it for this short research. I’m very happy to share it with you, because I know I won’t look at another rose without remembering the beauty my eyes have seen on this trip.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Learning about the main Hort species in Tuscany

Leo Lombardini, Associate Professor (Faculty Leader):
In this photo, the 18 Aggies enrolled in the International Horticulture course attend a "non-traditional" lecture outside of the classroom to learn about and recognize some of the most common plant species grown in Italian gardens and orchards as well as some of the wild flowers typical of the Tuscan countryside. Some of the vegetable species encountered were artichoke, potato, tomato, onion, garlic, faba beans. Fruit and ornamental trees we recognized were apricot, peach, plum, pomegranate (Punica granatum) and the omnipresent olive tree (Olea europaea), stone pine (Pinus pinea), and Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens). On the background, the city of Castiglion Fiorentino with the Santa Chiara Study Center.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Saturday, May 26, 2012

cena con gruppo

Dinner the first night with the entire Aggie group. The meal is served family style.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Picturesque Castiglion Fiorentino

Katie Marek, Undergrad Hort Advisor
We made it safely to Santa Chiara, The Texas A&M Center where the students will be studying. This is the picturesque view from the room where we are staying.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

First Arrivals to Houston Airport

Katie Marek, Undergrad Hort Advisor:

First students to arrive for trip. Waiting to check-in for Italy. Whoop. 4 hours to departure.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

SAMPLE POST: (1) title including location of the visit

First and last initial:

(2)    a detailed site description which should include history, plants and/or people we encountered; 

(3) a recollection of historical, artistic and/or horticultural concepts that you learned in this class;

(4)     your analysis and impressions.


Our journey begins in just over a week.  We invite you to follow us here as we take a horticultural trip through Italy.