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he Cypress Grove

Like most, you have probably said, "if you've seen one coniferous gymnosperm, you've seem them all." (Alas, how many moments have we wasted over that single phrase!) Yet, on the premises of the little church of the Madonna of the Cypresses just above the town of Fontegreca not too far from Caserta in the mountains of the Matese area of Italy, there is a grove of such trees that you must see. The Matese, with its regional park and highest karst* lake in Italy, is one of the areas in Italy where you go to get away from it all. "It all" has been in and out of the area many times over the millennia: there are Roman and Samnite ruins, medieval castles (such as the nearby Castello di Prato Sannita), and much more recently, the armies of WWII swept past to converge ferociously on nearby Monte Cassino. Yet the area has always managed to restore itself, to live up to the inscription, from the book of Isaiah, on the wall inside the tiny church

The glory of Lebanon shall come to you, The cypress, the pine, and the box tree together,
To beautify the place of My sanctuary; And I will make the place of My feet glorious.


That shows you just how much you know about Lebanon. Forget the cedars. Come see the cypresses. I know that Isaiah says that they will come to you, but you have to meet them halfway. That point is in the 200–acre cipresseta (cypress grove, pictured above) that climbs both slopes above a cascading stream on the grounds running up from and beyond the church (pictured, right). The origins of the religious sanctuary are in the eighth century, and the cyprus grove has been the object of traveller curiosity and then botanical interest since the 1600s. The stream is fed by the Sava river higher up in the valleys of the Apennines.


Apparently, the particular species of cyprus on the premises of this now protected park is unique in Europe. Girolamo, the gentle and jovial caretaker of the grounds—the gentleman who keeps the water-mill running!—says that no one knows how the trees got there and that they are not members of the species Cypressus Sempervirens, common elsewhere in Italy and apparently brought originally by the Etruscans, whom even Girolamo does not remember. Sempervirens, or one of its cousins, even provided the wood for the gates of Constantinople, which lasted 1,100 years. Here endeth the lesson in historical dendrology.




*Karst: A landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks including limestone, dolomite and gypsum. The word, itself, is the German name of Kras, an area in Italy and Slovenia, where it is called Carso and where the phenomenon was first studied. Karst areas are characterized by sinkholes, caves, underground drainage systems and collapse triggered by the development of underlying caves (Reference: Palmer, A.N., 1991). "Origin and morphology of limestone caves" in the Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 103, p 1-21.
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