Biodiversity is the variety of species on Earth. We hear about having to save it but what can we do to avoid the extinction of species? In San Lorenzo’s farm at Lerchi there are about 400 varieties of fruit trees which would otherwise have been lost. Livio Dalla Ragione, and now his daughter Isabella, found each of these varieties and planted it in order to preserve unique genetic and historical samples. It is an open air Museum called “Tree Archaeology” and in June it will become a Foundation.
By Marta Cerù
“Unfortunately it has been raining a lot and we didn’t have a chance to cut the grass”, Isabella says while guiding us to explore the fruit garden. “Every tree has a label with the variety’s name and the name of a person who decided to adopt it. Adoption is a way to fund our work. We don’t sell the fruit but it is gathered by the tree’s parent, and whatever is left over is made into jams or given to the animals that live around here: squirrels and dears. We keep bees and they pollinate the trees”.
Where does the name “Tree Archaeology” come from?
«It was my father’s idea because of the kind of work an archaeologist does: build a world from a small piece of it. We have reconstructed worlds of fruit from different clues: antique written archives, paintings representing old varieties of fruits, even people contacting us about a particular kind of tree.»
People call you to identify a fruit?
«Yes we are often called but the process to identify a new discovery is long. We have to recognize the variety, the name, the history, the different locations of a tree…»
Are you saying that plants move around?
«We actually are at a crossing point between different regions: Tuscany, Marche, Umbria, Emilia Romagna. Not only people move around but they carry trees along through commerce, pilgrimage, wedding routes. I’ll give you an example: the Red Stone Apple is typical in the Gualdo area but it comes from the Marche and there it is called Stone Apple. The Bread Apple is from Caprese Michelangelo but you can find it in Pietralunga by the name Cheese Apple because of a shape similar to a form of cheese. In Norcia they also call it Bread Apple because they use baskets to carry bread which have the same shape of that apple.»
What is your latest discovery?
«The March Pear is a very late variety and doesn’t depend on the weather. Its fruits are ready in March, they are small, hard and only good when cooked. To discover a fruit means also to recuperate the gastronomical culture around it.»
How did you start taking care of trees on the edge of extinction?
«It wasn’t really a choice. I was a child when my father bought this property and I spent my childhood here. My dream was to become a forest guard, not a dancer or a hair dresser like many of my girlfriends. Perugia didn’t have a field of study in forest science so I studied to become an agronomist. But my feelings with trees doesn’t come from studying, it comes from my past, from my playing here.»
It was a family passion then…
«Well, when I studied in the Seventies and Eighties all that was taught was intensive agriculture. The ideas of preserving rural landscape, and recuperating old farming traditions were considered a form of romanticism not at all a scientific field.»
When did the trend start changing?
«In 1992, with the Rio de Janeiro Convention, people started talking about the biodiversity crisis for the first time. Today people still don’t appreciate recuperating our agricultural biodiversity, as opposed to the naturally occurring one. It is a huge job, a manual labor, dirty and full of possible failure. It is not a simple matter of grafting trees. It wasn’t but thirty years ago when we often witnessed the extinction of a variety before our very eyes.»
What is the goal of the “Tree Archaeology Foundation”?
«It is an important goal which could allow me to find some partners for funding this place and the work needed to keep it. The old Church here could become, if restored, a visitor center. It was destroyed in 1713 by an earthquake, and yet it is well preserved despite some damage that needs to be addressed. It is difficult to find sponsors but it is the main purpose of the Foundation…»