On the Farnetto Path

A monstrous mask in the Sacro Bosco, Bomarzo (click on images to enlarge)

On Friday, October 21 I set out very early from Milan to drive almost 700 km south toward Lazio, the region in central Italy surrounding Rome, having as my final destination the Parco Nazionale del Circeo.

Although I have visited Rome many times, both for leisure and business, I have always wanted to explore its natural surroundings, which are, in their splendor, equal to our historic monuments and artistic heritage.

After a couple of hours' drive, I stopped in Modena (180 km southeast) to pick up my father Claudio, an expert botanist who has transmitted to me a passion for nature and plants.

Then I drove south on the A1 motorway across the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines, passing through Tuscany to arrive at the Sacro Bosco (Sacred Grove) in Bomarzo, commonly known as Parco dei Mostri (Park of Monsters). This is a very peculiar and quaint garden created in 1552 by the Orsini, the landlords of this hilly and lush portion of Lazio called Tuscia, about 500 km south of Milan and only 90 km north of Rome.

The peculiarity of this park, as the common name suggests, is the presence of a number of large local stones carved in the shape of monsters or figures from Greco-Roman mythology. The flora of the garden is mostly of

Polypodium vulgare

wild origin apart for some trees planted in the 70s, most of which are dying, such as cedar (Cedrus sp.), Italian stone pine (Pinus pinea), and privet (Ligustrum japonicum, L. lucidum).

Like many areas of the Tyrrhenian (west) coast of Italy, this garden, thanks to its hilly position, benefits from higher rainfall and less evaporation. Therefore we could find five species of native ferns (Polypodium vulgare, Asplenium scolopendrium, A. adiantum-nigrum, Adiantum capillus-veneris, Dryopteris filix-mas), all very lush, plus trees that require ample year-round moisture, such as Quercus robur and Laurus nobilis.

Oaks I spotted included Quercus ilex (mostly planted), Q. pubescens, Q. cerris, Q robur, Q. dalechampii, Q. virgiliana (currently considered to be a synonym of Q. pubescens), and Q. petraea. I could not find many acorns

Old Quercus ilex growing on local stone

due to the wild boars that roam free in the park (a recurring feature during the journey) while other acorns I did find still had to mature (possibly due to the coldish spring and not too hot summer). In addition, the dry conditions of last year probably did not produce a mast year. The last two specimens are therefore tentatively named, since I could identify them based only on leaf shape, but they are indicated as present in the area. Q. pubescens is present in all of Italy and in all its islands; it is thus very variable and adaptable. I have seen a specimen living next to larch (Larix decidua) in the Dolomites of Trentino and another next to Bismarck palms (Bismarckia nobilis) in Palermo, Sicily. No other oak species has such a large range in Italy.

Apart from oaks there were many sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa), which prefer moist, well-drained, non-alkaline soil. Tuscia soils are mostly acidic or subacidic given their volcanic origin.

Quercus robur Detail of Hercules from the sculpture Ercole e Caco (Hercules and Cacus)
Oak seedlings Acorns and cones
Palazzo Orisini, Bomarzo Unidentified oak

At around 15:00 we left for Rome, this time driving not on the motorway but instead using the Roman roads, first Via Flaminia and then Via Cassia, where we could enjoy some remnants of the local countryside and some Roman ruins, especially in Nepi, an old Etruscan town with impressive walls (1540) and aqueduct (1727). We escaped the notorious Roman rush-hour traffic jams, except for the last 4 km, which I completed at the impressive speed of 8 km per hour. Our B&B was in the outskirts of Rome in the Casal Palocco neighborhood. After check-in we walked to a local trattoria where we ate abbacchio a scottadito or roasted lamb with local vegetables, a classic and delicious Roman dish.

On Saturday we had a rendezvous at 8:30 to visit the Tenuta Presidenziale di Castelporziano. This is one of the three official residences of the President of the Italian Republic and has only recently been opened to the general public. It boasts 5,900 hectares of farmland, woodlands, ponds, and coastal maquis. The park is

Maremanna cattle and ponies in Tenuta Presidenziale di Castelporziano

managed with the aim of protecting and restoring the natural environment while preserving some rare local breeds like Razza Maremmana, an ancient cattle breed very similar to the extinct Urus and present in many Roman bas-reliefs, and the Cavallo Maremmano, a tough pony used by the butteri (cowboys of the Maremma) to round up the Maremmana cattle. In Castelporziano it is still possible to see the natural vegetation of the Roman countryside, not different from what a Roman could have seen 2,000 years ago, thanks to a number of well-conserved areas, Vegetation is evergreen maquis along the coast, broadleaf forest of Quercus cerris and Q. frainetto, (farnetto[1] oak, also known as Hungarian or Italian oak) and an intermediate belt of Q.

Farnetto or Hungarian oak (Quercus frainetto)

suber (cork oak). The latter is evergreen but occupies the same ecological niche as the deciduous oaks. Where the soil was sandier then Q. ilex would take over.

This huge area was spared from urban development thanks to its use as a game reserve by the King of Italy after Rome was unified to the rest of the country in 1870. King Vittorio Emanuele II was an enthusiastic hunter and thanks to his passion Alpine animals like ibex and chamois were protected and saved from total extinction in Parco Nazionale Gran Paradiso in the northeastern Italian Alps.

Nowadays in the Preserve of Castelporziano several species of game animals can be found, including the rare subspecies of Italian roe deer (Capreolus capreolus italicus), Italian hare (Lepus corsicanus) and Italian wild boar (Sus scrofa majori) plus the fallow deer (Dama dama) imported from Persia by the Romans. It is kept for historic reasons since it is the oldest Italian population of fallow deer ever recorded. Among other mammals, red deer (Cervus elaphus), red fox (Vulpes vulpes), marten (Martes martes, M. foina), porcupine (Hystrix cristata), and badger (Meles meles) roam the preserve, while among birds, roller (Coracias garrulous), bee-eater (Merops apiaster), hoopoe (Upupa epops), nightingales (Luscinia megarynchos), black kite (Milvus migran), cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis), green and red woodpeckers (Picus viridis, Dendrocopos major), and rose-ringed parakeets (Psittacula krameri) can be sighted feeding or flying over especially in summer.

In order to preserve such a delicate environment, encroached on its north and west borders by the Roman urban sprawl, and limited to the south by the sea and to the east by the Pontina highway, it is possible to visit only a

Quercus pubescens

small part of the parkland and only in a guided tour with a park service guide. We selected the Malafede Route that concentrates on the oak woodland. Among other tours available at the time were an archeological one to visit Adrian’s imperial villa and the Capocotta Route that visits an area which is naturally reconverting into forest.

Castelporziano holds at least seven species of oaks (the pubescens group is controversial and counted as one here): Quercus robur, Q. cerris, Q. pubescens group (Q. virgiliana is definitely present), Q. frainetto, Q. ilex, Q. suber, and Q. crenata (a stabilized hybrid of Q. suber and Q. cerris, considered by some to be a synonym of Q. ×hispanica). There is also Ulmus minor, Populus sp., Salix sp., Fraxinus sp., Prunus sp., Carpinus orientalis, and C. betulus.

Historically the woodlands have been farmed using coppicing to make charcoal to be sold in Rome. Cork oaks were planted and harvested to make cork with a 10/12 years cycle and Pinus pinea was planted for pine kernels,

Santini Senior with cork oak (Quercus suber)

turpentine, and timber for the naval industry. Nowadays the woodlands are reconverting from coppice to high forest, while pinewoods of Pinus pinea (imported—albeit 2000 to 3000 years ago) are changing into natural woodlands as pine dies. Cork is not harvested anymore, but some trees still show the sign of such practice.

This was the first time I entered a mixed Q. frainetto oak forest. Here farnetto oaks have a broad canopy on a short but stout bole. It shares the wood with Q. cerris, Q. suber, Q. crenata, and Q. pubescens plus some other deciduous trees. It is very rich in underbrush, mainly evergreens like Pistacia lentiscus, Arbutus unedo, Erica arborea, Phillyrea angustifolia, Myrtus communis, Crataegus sp., Rhamnus alaternus, Ulmus minor, Acer campestre, Prunus sp., Carpinus betulus, and C. orientalis.

To my bewilderment I could not spot any exotic species so common in the rest of Italy such as Robinia pseudoacacia and Ailanthus altissima, attesting to the very good status of the woodlands. I only found seedlings of Phoenix canariensis and Acacia dealbata around the garden of the Castel building. However, Q. robur and Q. suber, which require an ample supply of moisture, are suffering and decaying due to the recent prolonged drought and the lowering of the water table caused by the city of Rome.

Leaves of Quercus crenata Variation in leaves of Quercus robur
Quercus crenata Quercus suber

At 14:00 we finished the tour and we left Rome towards Sabaudia in the Pontine Marshes (Agro Pontino in Italian), the once swampy and malarial area in the southern Lazio just north of Campania. That area was drained and set aside for agriculture in 1932 during the fascist regime, and the land was settled with farming

Sabaudia Town Hall

families from Veneto and Emilia Romagna. Fortunately some land was set aside for future generations and the Parco Nazionale del Circeo was created in the same year. It takes its name from Monte Circeo, where Ulysses met the witch-goddess Circe, who transformed his crew into pigs. Today the mountain is covered by a thick holm oak (Q. ilex) carpet and it is home for Chamaerops humilis or dwarf palm, one of the only two palms native of the Mediterranean coast.

Our hotel was on Lago di Paola, one of several saltwater lakes that run next to the dune-covered coast.

On Saturday night we walked through Sabaudia thinking about how much recent history has already taken place in such a small and recent town (it is just over 80 years old, something very unusual in Italy, and it has evolved from swamps to agricultural land, and lived through fascism, the Second World War, and then the Republic). However the harbor that connects Lake Paola with the sea was built during the Roman Empire and it is still in use. We ate a good portion of spaghetti alla carbonara with fresh local vegetables (both delicious) before returning to the hotel.

On Sunday morning we first visited the beach, the dunes, and the swampy lakes. The first line of dunes was covered by a thick juniper brush (two species: Juniperus macrocarpa and J. phoenicea), while the other line bears a more varied macquis including Quercus ilex, which surprisingly were flowering. We spotted flamingo—both adults and juvenile—in the swamps.

Old Roman port in Sabaudia Monte Circeo

Then we headed to the 3,300-hectare forest Selva di Circe (Circe’s Forest) while stopping along the roadsides under farnetto oaks and searching for acorns (wild boars luckily do not roam onto tarmac yet). The forest is mainly composed of Quercus cerris and Q. frainetto, with butcher's-broom (Ruscus aculeatus) as the main

Adult and juvenile flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus)

underbrush, while Q. robur, Alnus glutinosa, and Fraxinus angustifolia subsp. oxycarpa prosper on the annually-flooded bogs. Other less common oaks are Q. suber, Q. ilex, Q. virgiliana, and Q. pubescens.

Among other plants interesting to report are: Daphne gnidium, Asparagus acutifolius, the blooming Cyclamen hederifolium, plus many mushrooms. Selva di Circe is the largest European remnant of the original coastal-plain woodlands that once covered most of the Italian coastland, northern Italy, and many areas of Mediterranean Europe.

The swamps resemble those of the southern US, since the trees grow a swollen base that recalls bald cypress and water tupelos and are covered by ferns, moss, and mushrooms. The forest was full of wild boars so no acorns were in sight except, strangely, for the bog we visited that was full of Q. robur acorns, some of normal size but others very large. Also, the leaves were either standard size with normal lobes, or large with deep sinuses. I found similar features in the Astroni, an old oak woodland growing in a caldera of an extinct volcano in Naples Metropolitan Area (only 100 km south), so probably the bog has some Q. robur subsp. brutia.

Juniper brush on the sand dunes at Sabaudia Quercus robur in a swamp in Selva di Circe

Some areas of the forest are fenced off to animal and humans and there the underbrush is richer.

Apart for some Gleditsia triacanthos (honey locust), I did not spot any real invasive species in the forest. In the countryside, eucalyptus (E. camaldulensis, E. globulus, E. viminalis) planted to help dry the area have escaped the plantations but nothing serious so far.

The countryside is mainly farmed for vegetables, kiwi fruit, and for nurseries (mainly palms and bamboos), so I was pleased to see such a small presence of weed plants in an almost sub-tropical area corresponding to a USA Zone 9b/10a, that potentially can support a wide range of weeds—unlike other Italian coastal woodlands, which are full of seedlings of Eriobotrya japonica, Ligustrum lucidum, Robinia pseudoacacia, Ailanthus altissima, Trachycarpus fortunei, Yucca sp., etc.

Moss and ferns on a Quercus cerris in Selva di Circe A large Quercus frainetto in Selva di Circe
Quercus frainetto with Bougainvillea sp., Sabaudia. This tree stands in the devil strip of a country house and it was clearly there before the house was built. The presence of the bougainvillea is a good indication of the hardiness zone the tree grows in.  Leaves of farnetto oak, Selva di Circe

[1] “Farnetto” is the common name in Italian of Quercus frainetto. It is in fact a diminutive of “farnia”, the Italian name for Quercus robur. Due to a typographical error when the name was first published by Michele Tenore, the accepted name bears the epithet “frainetto,” but it was intended to be Quercus farnetto.