We had a wonderful trip to Tuscany at the end of May for my Godson’s wedding, forced by the twice-weekly flight schedule to spend a couple of days in Florence enjoying grown up things first; the Uffizi Gallery, the Museo San Marco (my personal favourite) and the Basilica di Santa Croce.
Florence: Left, 14th Century Nativity by Simone di Filippo in the Uffizi Gallery (look at the donkey!); Right, fresco of the risen Christ in a millefleur garden on the walls of a San Marco cell
More about this part of our trip in Martyn’s blog, as he can write much more eloquently about art than me!
From Florence we headed east, half an hour’s drive up the Arno river to a farmhouse near the little village of Le Sieci. We’d chosen Agriturismo Podere Palazzuolo mainly for its proximity to the wedding venue, Castello del Trebbio, in the next valley along but it turned out to be both rustically charming and something of a botanical paradise, located amongst olive trees, fruit trees and a vineyard.
I spent several happy hours exploring the area around the farmhouse – though the land stretching down to the stream in the valley bottom is farmed, it is managed with a very light touch. The vegetation around the olive trees is left long and is full of flowers – maybe the beehives near the top of the farm partly explain this practice.
The most exciting find of my first foray out was a couple of bee orchid spikes with pure white sepals amidst a damp meadow full of pyramidal orchids, Anacamptis pyramidalis. Presumably the bee orchids do well with plenty of bees to trick into pollinating them!
Anacamptis pyramidalis and white Ophrys apifera
Many nitrogen-fixing legumes testify to the relatively poor soil – sainfoins, broom, vetches and sweet peas.
Members of the daisy family, Asteraceae, are also well represented, along with flax, asphodels, rock roses, pinks and alliums.
I’m unashamedly a botanist but, whilst marvelling at the plant diversity, I couldn’t fail to notice the diverse insect life supported by the plants – butterflies (most of which wouldn’t sit still long enough to have their photo taken), beetles, shield bugs, crab spiders and ants.
There are also signs of larger animal life in the long grass – flattened patches where deer or wild boar have laid down to rest. I was slightly alarmed at the prospect of coming across a slumbering boar on my wanders but suspect they keep to woodland during the hours of daylight, at least. We were assured by the manager at Castello del Trebio that, when numbers of the boar grow large enough to start posing a threat to their vinyards, the local farmers get togther and organise a shoot which has the added bonus of helping stock their freezers for free!
I stumbled across the real botanical hghlight of the trip completely by accident, near the bee hives. Lizard orchids are something I’ve never seen in the UK – they limited to coastal areas of SE England and are certainly not found as far north as my usual botanising haunts. The half a dozen or so specimens I found were robust – more than 50 cm tall and with the central part of the lower lip or labellum forming 5 cm long forked ‘tongues’ on each flower. This does seem like rather an extreme way of attracting the mining bees which pollinate it though it removes the need for a nectar reward – an interesting trade off between a “one-off” investment in extraordinary flowers and the continual production of nectar.
Himantoglossum adriaticum, whole plant with a 15 cm ruler for scale
We had little time for exploring beyond where we stayed but discovering this beautiful place and noticing the number of walking trails our road crossed means this corner of rural Tuscany is very firmly on the holiday agenda. Its proximity to Florence means we also think it could be a holiday done by train and hire car, which would help assuage our guilt about continuing to fly. However some things will always be worth flying for…