Mary Vaananen, a Jelitto Perennial Seeds colleague, emailed sad news on my first day in Florence, Italy. Judith Tyler had died. Jude was a longtime friend. She and her husband, Dick, grew hellebores at their Pine Knot Farms in Clarksville, Virginia.
For the next two days, I staggered around Florence with jet lag and few clear thoughts. Spring had arrived early. Scatterings of saucer magnolias and forsythias reminded me of what I’d left behind in Kentucky. Lots of Italian cypress and stone pines were signature pieces of the Italian landscape that we don’t see in Kentucky.
Nor is there anything here quite like Boboli Gardens. The Medicis were just starting their colossal garden not long after Columbus set sail for America.
Boboli’s miles and miles of clipped hedges of holm oak, bay laurel and Viburnum tinus were the legacy of Europes’s first hedge fund managers. Hedges need regular pruning. For nearly 300 years the Medici family bankrolled the Renaissance. Michelangelo, da Vinci and Galileo got a leg up with their help.
The Medicis maintained their garden and their hedges, flush with cash from the woolen trade and banking. Versailles was inspired by Boboli. So, perhaps. were more modest gardens, maintained by those of us who keep a pair of hedge clippers in the garage.
Crowds gathered near the Galleria dell’Accademia to see the marble statue of David. There were no tourists with rucksacks or selfie sticks off the between path at Piazza Massimo d’Azegglio. Gathered here was a neighborhood crowd. Old men nodding out on benches, babies in strollers, and teenagers sharing cigarettes made it a scene to be duplicated in thousands of public parks around the world.
We were just two days into the trip but well into some fabulous meals. I’ve never experienced a poached Mediterranean sea bass, or any fish, quite this tasty. You need to watch The Trip to Italy if you want to see how splendid, and relaxed, Italian meals can be.
We left Florence on Palm Sunday and drove toward Panzano for lunch. The Chianti valleys were richly green with winter wheat, the hillsides planted with gray-green olive trees. Naked grape vines had been pruned hard over the winter. Fallow fields lay dotted with a bright yellow relative of the mustard family.
Walter and Catherine Christopherson had invited us to the Tuscan countryside, along with Farrell and Karen Smith. I’ve known Walter and Farrell since childhood. Laughter follows us wherever we go. Rose and I were very happy to be in fun company.
Along the way, a few times, on the woodland verges I thought I spotted the stinking hellebore, Helleborus foetidus. Walter drove the six of us in a minivan, small Fiats and Peugeots nipping at our tail. There were no pull-offs and no way to stop. The fat, chartreuse seed heads of the suspected hellebores were a blur. I thought of Jude Tyler again. I wasn’t sure I’d see anymore hellebores.
Lunch on Palm Sunday at Dario Cecchini’s in Panzano was memorable for a couple of reasons. It was cold, and the beef was warm. We sat outside at community picnic tables with friendly Italians. Most of us were bundled in blankets supplied by Dario.
A tasty mussels broth kicked things off, followed by spicy meat ragu on toast. Little morsels of beef, Ramerino en Culo (Rosemary Up the Ass), from the rear end of the cow, eased us toward the beef roast main course. Braised meats followed. There were a few carrot sticks and fennel to chew on between meat courses. And, of course, there was a fine Chianti.
We made it to our country house near Casole d’Elsa later in the afternoon.
The next week farmers were plowing their fields for planting. Willows were leafing out near waterways. Thousands of white plums flowered along fence lines.
We took scenic day trips to Volterra, San Gimignano and Siena. We didn’t skip a meal. We had dinner several nights in the nearby town of Mensano. The wild boar stew was delicious. The thin crust Boletus mushroom pizza and a 2010 vintage Brunello Montalcino in Randicondoli were out of this world. I may never have another saffron-colored risotto with asparagus and passion fruit like the one I had for lunch in Siena on Good Friday.
The oak woods on the hilltops around our beautiful stone house were full of surprises, too-for instance, a Cyclamen, a curry plant, a white blooming tree heath, and the evergreen butcher’s broom that was still holding onto a few red berries. There were even a few tiny orchids and an unidentified Ophrys species.
And then there it was.
One stinking hellebore.
The short-lived but lovely Helleborus foetidus is drought resistant and seeds around abundantly in Louisville, underneath our 20-year-old white flowering Magnolia ‘Wada’s Memory’.
Judith Tyler and co-author Cole Burrell, in Hellebores – A Comprehensive Guide, dispel the notion of anything terribly fetid or stinky about the species: “The undeserved name refers to the slightly musky odor of the crushed leaves. Uncrushed, the leaves emit little or no scent. The flowers run the gamut from sweetly scented to slightly skunky or scentless.”
Days later, a little farther up the road from our house, I spotted a few more stinking hellebores. They were seeding around very nicely. I saw another species, too. Another Jelitto colleague, Georg Uebelhart, identified it from photos as Helleborus multifidus ssp. bocconei, an Italian endemic.
Jude Tyler would have loved this.