Beyond the Umbrian Garden

It is springtime again in the Umbrian hills, and the green is intense after heavy winter rains and also some deep frost. All pruning, planting, weeding, and mulching is done, so I venture out beyond my roses, geraniums, jasmine, and other cultivars and put on my hiking shoes to discover what nature offers the curious observer. I head down past the curved driveway and the mailbox, and walk further down the dirt road mostly shaded by oak, maple, and some wild cherry trees. I keep my eyes open for all that grows and crawls below them, just above the road’s drainage ditches. It is early May, so the few stands of my beloved helleborus foetidus along the road, with its light green flowers and their burgundy-colored rims, are past their bloom, but two other unusual flowers and another, more common, but just as lovely flower get my close attention: the exceptional looking aristolochia rotunda, the striking tassel hyacinth (leopoldia comosa), and the delicate melissa officinalis

The larger patches of aristolochia rotunda have a diameter of about a foot and a half and are equally tall. The dark-purple, almost black flowers grow out of the center of the heart-shaped leaves along the stem. When I first encountered this delicate aristolochia rotunda , I was struck by the oddity of the shape of its flower. Not knowing what I was looking at, I thought it had to be a carnivorous plant because of its deep funnel shape from which escape seems difficult; but then, why would a fold in the blossom almost cover its opening, teasingly inviting desirable visitors to enter, but then obstructing their the path that would lead them to the treasured pollen? So I asked for help at MGS. There I learned – Thank you, Alisdair! – that the flower ”does lure little flies and other insects right into an inner chamber of its flower, temporarily trapping them there for pollination, but it lets them go and doesn’t eat them.” (Alisdair Aird, MGS). So the mystery is solved, and I am glad that little insects do make it in and then back out, and in fact, help propagate this delicate and unusual flower.

Farther down the road, on the right, is a small olive grove in a triangular, un-mowed meadow, where sun-loving wild flowers find their home. Here a deep purplish-blue, one-foot tall, seemingly leafless flower stands out: the tassel hyancinth (Leopoldina comosa).. Novice in plant identification that I am, I needed MGS help in identifying also this lovely flower – Thanks again, Alisdair! It reminds me of the grape hyacinth (Muscari) of my northern California garden. However, it also seems quite different. The tassel hyacinth is taller than the grape hyacinth that I am familiar with, and more purplish in color. What makes it also different is that a dozen or so of the uppermost flower buds, at the very top of the long and narrow cluster of buds, open up into an upside-down tassel while the rounded lower buds remain closed until they wilt, and the pollen inside never seems to see the light of day – another one of nature’s mysteries.

Passing patches of wild thyme and strawberries in bloom, I have now reached the junction where the narrow dirt road that leads to my home meets the elegant cypress-lined “strada bianca.” Here the forest opens up to the view of the off-the-beaten-track valley below. I glance at the “Madonnina,” a red-brick shrine of the Madonna, set at the fork where the two roads meet and adorned with permanent flowers placed there by a devout neighbor, then turn around and head back home up the hill.

Now again in the damp shade of the forest canopy, several patches of the pure-white, half-hidden flowers of melissa officinalis peek from underneath its soft, bright green foliage. While there are only few flowers on each stem, they are large and showy. Each blossom grows out of a green, chalice-like sepal. How curious that the blossoms grow in pairs along the stem, hand in hand, it seems, like two best friends! I have searched for photos of similar Melissa plants on the internet, but have found that the flowers of the Melissa are usually arranged in a circle around the stem in clusters of at least three. I may have discovered a pair-flowered subspecies of Melissa officinalis only found on my road!

Back at the house, I sit down on a terrace chair, take off my hiking shoes and contemplate the delight of discovering wild plant life so close to home. On the terrace, I am surrounded by roses and geraniums, time-demanding cultivars to which I give so much attention from April to October. Although they enchant me with their beauty, I am bedazzled by the diversity and humble, undemanding exquisiteness of wild flowers. I promise myself to explore the nearby meadows untouched by human hand before too long.


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The Pleasures of an Un-mowed Lawn

Here I am, back at Calboccia in late April. I hear that it hasn’t rained in the area for two months, yet all is green – the trees, the foliage of our sixty-some rose plants, and the grass of our lawns. The Umbrian green calms my eyes and soul, but amidst the green, there is plenty of white: that of the little daisies (Bellis perennis) and of the Stars of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum). I am going to fend off the gardener for a couple more weeks to let green and white and purple (wild thyme, making up a good portion of the lawn above our Essiccatoio) last a bit longer!Narcissus.jpgDaisies.jpg

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Of Hornets, Bats, and Wasps

wasp nest 1.jpg

How I Learned to Appreciate Wasps

Some years ago, a hornet nest was being crafted diligently and expertly inside our house wall by some of these noisy and frightening creatures.  When I asked our gardener Vittorio, a gentle and animal-loving soul, for advice on how to deal with them, I was told that the only thing to do was to kill them by spraying poison into the access hole in the outer wall where the hornets fly in and out. Early in the morning, when all hornets are peacefully asleep inside the wall would be the best time for the attack, Vittorio said and volunteered for the job.

The next morning at 6 o’clock, Vittorio, armed with a large spray bottle of hornet poison, drove up our hill, arranged a step ladder so that he could comfortably spray into the hole, and emptied the can into the wall opening that I had identified as the entrance to the hornets’ hive.  Sadly, I had been mistaken, and a family of eight bats escaped from the opening. Most flew into the early-morning light and were not seen again, but one died shortly after.

I felt guilty and stupid.  I should have known that the spaces between the inner and the outer walls of our old farm house accommodate not just hornets, but also bats, wasps, scorpions, and who knows what other creatures,  who all have their useful and rightful  place in our environment.  However, they ended up as collateral damage. Right then I decided to never, never use poison again.

A year after this sad incident, the construction work on another wasp hive was discovered high up in the outer wall of our Essiccatoio, the restored drying shed.  I was determined to get them out of there, but was unwavering in using no poison. My son-in-law Julian was at hand to eliminate them in a gentler and more focused manner.  He came up with the idea of attaching the pipe of our vacuum cleaner to a step ladder so that the opening of the pipe rested on the wall right below the small wall opening that provided the wasps access to their would-be hive between the outer and the inner walls of the Essiccatoio.  Over the next four hours or so, the vacuum filled two bags with wasps.

A couple of years have passed since.  Over the last few days, I have been vacuuming away wasps on a new hole in the outer wall of the main house. Comfortably positioned on a chair in front of the wall, with the vacuum pipe in one hand and a glass of something in the other, I have been able to observe these hardworking and intelligent insects as my vacuum cleaner was sucking them up.  The longer I observe them, the more I come to appreciate them for their strength in slogging heavy loads of food for their young, or construction materials for their hive, and their resolve in finding alternate access to their hive once they found its access obstructed by cement.  I have also observed that several of these wasps were much larger and more strikingly colored than their hive brothers and sisters.  They also differed in behavior.  While the smaller wasps were anxious to deliver their loads, the few larger wasps lingered around the opening to the hive, occasionally even resting on the vacuum pipe to groom themselves.  Some even decided against entering altogether and, thus, escaped the pipe suction.  I wonder whether these larger, attractive wasps might be the possibly more intelligent and definitely more cautious, non-working ruling class of the hive.

While I believe that our peaceful home is better off with fewer wasps, I feel bad with every thump I feel in the pipe, signaling that another wasp is about to find its end in the vacuum bag.  However, Wikipedia says that the European wasps around here have no redeeming characteristics, particularly not pollinating our fruit trees.  So until I hear otherwise, I will continue vacuuming away our yellow-jackets.

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Long Forgotten 1939 Vintage Hand Towels

77-year old hidden damask hand towels finally hit the laundry line for the first time!

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Seventy-seven years ago, in 1939, back when this story begins, my German grandparents were the proprietors of a country store named “Kaufhaus Angeln,” which offered groceries, school supplies, shoes, dishes, cigarettes and cigars, garden tools, hats, candy, bales of cloth and bed and table linens to the residents of Sterup, a village in the small triangular-shaped region of Angeln in Schleswig Holstein, and the farmers of the surrounding farmsteads. Angeln skirts the south-western shores of the Baltic Sea just below the Danish border and is the ancestral homeland of the “Anglo” part of the Anglo-Saxons.

My grandparents, Hugo and Lilly Boerger, who were actually from the “Alte Land” area east of Hamburg, bought Kaufhaus Angeln in 1919, the year in which they got married, and moved to Sterup. Both worked hard, and the store was successful during the years that Sterup was still a vibrant economic center of the surrounding agricultural community. During my childhood back in the fifties and early sixties, farmers pulled up in horse-drawn wagons on the big square that separated the “Kaufhaus” from the tall oak trees of the church yard. After store hours, on long and sunny summer evenings, my parents, my aunt and their neighbor friends would play Badminton on that square; and during my teenage years, the store’s front steps on the square were the place where my friends and I hung out.

My grandparents had three children. Back in September 1939, Ilse (my mother) was nineteen years old, Hans-Juergen was fifteen, and Ingrid eight. Almost six devastating war years later, in August 1945, my uncle Hans-Juergen, clothed in his damp uniform and hulled in an equally damp carpet for warmth, would die of pneumonia just days before his parents could reach him at his camp in Westfalia; in 1947, my mother would marry an Austrian man and move to Vienna; and aunt Ingrid would be left to manage the store until it closed on New Year’s Eve 1975, and later, to care for her aging parents. “Opa Sterup” passed on in December 1980 at age 95, and “Oma Sterup” followed him in January 1984 at age 88.

In 1939, though, hard times were looming. Hitler’s German army marched into Poland on September 1, and my grandmother knew that stocking my mother’s and my aunt’s dowries with appropriate linens would become difficult if the war raged on, as it did. Therefore, without my grandfather’s knowledge, she secured portions of bales of linen damask and hand towels and buried them under blankets and comforters in a large, decoratively painted dowry chest that she in turn had inherited from her great grandmother.

And there they lay until last week. Terry and I visited Aunt Ingrid, now 85, during the first week of October of this year. Ingrid, who never got around to marrying and had no use for a dowry of linens, walked over to the “Kaufhaus Angeln,” now occupied by a dentist and her husband, where the old dowry chest still stands as it was too large for Ingrid’s much smaller house next door, and rummaged underneath the blankets and comforters. When she pulled out the linens from under them, the patterns of the damask were still glistening in their old splendor. “Do you want to have them?” she asked. I was thrilled when Aunt Ingrid regaled me with these beautiful old, unfinished pieces of cloth and about a dozen finished hand towels. A couple of days later, after traveling by plane from Hamburg to Florence, I brought them here to Calboccia, and washed them the next day. Now I am watching them, suspended from the laundry lines in our “bosco,’” sway in the breezes of Monte Calboccia. I am not sure whose dowry they supplement now – mine or that of my daughters, but it doesn’t matter. They are out in the open to be enjoyed.

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Thoughts About Planting


I have written earlier that I would report on our planting process at Calboccia, but then I didn’t.  It took me some time to think about this because there is more to say than what  we are planting this winter and spring; it also involves explaining how we choose what we plant, and what Calboccia was before it was abandoned by the sharecroppers who used to live here.  We always wonder with what kind of plants these sharecroppers may have surrounded themselves.   Our sense is that, historically, the “Contadini”  planted what was useful to them, not what would please their eyes or those of a visitor. During the “Mezzadria” system (, no Contadino or Contadina would have planted elegant cypresses or fragrant roses; those plants were the luxuries of the privileged. Instead, in addition to the crops they delivered to the landowner in exchange for the use of the land and their humble house, they planted what would nourish them and their large families.

My family and I have chosen plants for Calboccia with that tradition in mind.  Therefore, we have augmented, and continue to augment

  • ·      The olive orchard
  • ·      The fruit trees and shrubs:  The orchard now includes apple, quince, cherry, pear, plum, mulberry, walnut, fig, persimmon, and apricot trees; and red currant, hazelnut, and elderberry shrubs.
  • ·      The stand of trees for firewood and other purposes:  The are many, many, fairly young elm trees which provide pleasant shade at Calboccia.  This spring,  for diversity’s sake, we are augmenting our  elm “Boschetto” with the local field maple, Italian maple, and Italian alder.

That said, we have also planted many, many roses and other Mediterranean flowering plants.  They are our concession to living in the 21st century and to not being Contadini.

One important note about planting fruit trees:  Recently, we have been introduced to Isabella Dalla Ragione, the “Fruit Tree Archaeologist.” We were left with a deep impression of the importance of her work of discovering ancient fruit varieties in old, abandoned orchards and of promoting their importance for biodiversity (  You will find some fruit trees in our orchard that Isabella has propagated herself.  In addition, our family has adopted a tree of ancient fig variety that remains at Isabella’s San Lorenzo di Lerchi’s orchard, but we get its harvest!

Please, feel free to harvest any fruit while staying at Calboccia!

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We Adopted!

Last Christmas, our children presented us with the most thoughtful gift:  The adoption of a fruit tree of an ancient variety at the “Archeologia Arborea” in San Lorenzo di Lerchi in Umbria (, just a couple of kilometers west of Citta’ di Castello.  The fig tree we chose remains at Isabella Della Ragione’s orchard, but we get to harvest its large, juicy fruit.

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We got re-adopted: The Cat Came Back!

Bianchino2  Extremely well-fed and now neutered, stray cat Bianchino has returned to Calboccia after half a year of absence.  Over last fall and early winter, he must have been taken in at a neighboring villa, where the owners stay around all year.  Good for him, but what an opportunist!  But we are glad to have him back.

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Three Oddities: Thousands of Birds, a Summer Truffle in March, and a Red Mushroom

More winter experiences:

One late afternoon in February, my attention was drawn away from preparing dinner to the sound of many bird wings outside.  When I emerged out of the house to the front terrace,  I realized that many thousands of starlings had descended on Calboccia.  It was quite a sight!Image

The picture above only shows the few starlings that stopped in the trees, but many, many more were up in the air, the sound of their wings resembling a storm!

I have found black summer truffles at Calboccia, but never in March! Image

And finally, while raking leaves under our big oak tree, near the same spot where the truffle fell into my hands, I discovered a tiny, bright-red mushroom.  What a brilliant little treasure!Image

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Winter 2014: Planting and Pruning


This winter has been extraordinary:  I have not seen so much water come down our little Monte Calboccia!    Yes, there was lots of rain until early March, so much so that the Niccone River, which is usually hardly more than a stream along the Niccone Valley, flooded a couple of fields.  The Tiber River, too, was fairly close to doing the same, but didn’t – per fortuna!   Now it’s mid March, and nature has calmed down.  February and March are the months to prune our olive trees, fruit trees  and roses at Calboccia, and we did with gusto. 


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Lavender harvest

We’re keeping the bees, butterflies and hawk moths (they look like tiny hummingbirds!) happy by letting the lavender flower out before harvesting it.  When the blossoms dry up, we’ve been picking them, and letting the houses fill up with their wonderful, calming scent.

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