Preserving our Italian Heirlooms

Cucuzza seeds

Antonio Machi grows a cucuzza variety brought over from his hometown of Sant’Elia, Sicily.  Seeds from this unique strain, seen here, are an important addition to our Heirloom Seed Collection.

 

In an Italian American garden nothing is more precious than fruits and vegetables from the Old Country with a taste of home.  Seeds and cuttings from these prized plants were brought from Italy, carefully propagated in backyard gardens, and traded as valuable commodities among Italian immigrant communities.  Years of cultivating these Mediterranean varieties here in the US have created unique strains with Italian origins yet well adapted to thrive in a new climate.

Unfortunately, each year as gardeners age and fewer and fewer plots are planted, these heirloom seeds and trees, which have been nurtured and passed down over hundreds of years and across continents, risk being lost or forgotten.   In order to safeguard these unique treasures, The Italian Garden Project™ created our Heirloom Seed Collection and our Legacy Fig Tree Garden to preserve this precious living history which has nourished our families and shaped our cultural identity.

The Heirloom Seed Collection

 

Heirloom Seed Collection

Part of our Heirloom Seed Collection on display.

 

Our Heirloom Seed Collection is composed of seeds brought over from Italy, and grown in the US for at least 20 years.  Some of the seeds in our collection have been grown and passed down through Italian families for almost a century, like the Sicilian parsley seeds donated by Sue Cancilla Conde.  Other seeds arrived in the US later, but represent rare varieties, sometimes hard to find even in the Italian towns where they originated, like the four types of tomato seeds from Calabria donated by Mariano Floro of Sewickley, PA.

tomatoes

Seeds from all four of these tomato varieties grown by Mariano Floro of Sewickley, PA, are part of our Heirloom Seed Collection.

 

Collecting, saving, and propagating these unique varieties in our Heirloom Seed Collection helps protect our planet’s biodiversity and ensures that these rare plants do not disappear forever.  We are preserving not just seeds, but the authentic flavors selected and nurtured by our ancestors.

 Legacy Fig Tree Garden

The fig is a revered fruit to Italian Americans. It adapts and thrives in a land not its own, much like the immigrants themselves. Growing a fig tree when they arrived in the US was a way for our uprooted ancestors to have a small piece of the Old World in the New.   Immigrants cared lovingly for these trees, wrapping them each winter to protect them from the cold, pruning them each season to maximize fruit production, and covering them in nets to keep pesky birds and squirrels from stealing the eagerly anticipated figs.  Fig trees have become an icon of the Italian American experience.

Recognizing the importance of these trees, we have created our Legacy Fig Tree Garden, composed of fig trees brought over from Italy and grown by Italian American gardeners in the United States for at least 25 years. This garden not only preserves these living heirlooms, but also honors the humble heroes who grew them.

Bruno and Fig Tree

Bruno Garofalo stands next to his fig tree after unwrapping its winter protection. A cutting from this tree has been propagated in our Legacy Fig Tree Garden.

 

Currently the collection holds just over ten trees, including interesting varieties like a Sicilian Bifara fig, which requires a wasp to pollinate its pale green fruit.  We also have a tree donated by Bruno Garofalo, whose garden will be the second Italian American garden documented and included in the Smithsonian Archives of American Gardens. The original cutting of that tree arrived in Pittsburgh from Bruno’s hometown of Petrella Tifernina, in Molise as a tiny cutting stitched into the lining of a coat, and grew to be over 20 feet tall. We will not only preserve the fig trees themselves, but also the story of the gardener, learning as much as we can about them, their gardens, and a way of life closely connected to the earth.

Below is a sample of the profile we will create for each tree in the collection.


If you or your family has seeds or fig trees that trace their origin to Italy let us know.  We are working to expand these collections, but we can’t do it without your help.

 

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Comments

Ronald J. Malik

Was house sitting my mother in-laws house right next to Sam’s (Sabatino’s) (at time of filming) and my father in-law used to also have a garden. The Scarpino’s garden was about 40 by 10 approx. Grapes, peaches, walnuts, fig, and the standard list of veggies. My father in-law Joe worked just like Sam with love for the dirt! Till his death in 2002 (reason for us being at mum’s house). I also garden on a smaller scale, my people use to have chickens, plums, pears, 3 kinds of grapes, 3 types of grape press’s! and 2.5 lot filled with gardens in Mt Washington (Pgh.). Grandpap and Nunnie were in the first wave of immigrants he was born 1868-70? Nunnie birthed 13 children for sure, and was the neighborhood mid-wife. Uncle Phil changed the family name from Spina to Spain because anti-immigrant sentiment in the early 1900’s.

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Mary Menniti

Thanks for sharing your memories, Ron. Yes, at one time Italian American gardens were so commonplace that we took them for granted. Many backyards were filled with produce of all kinds, and fruit and nut trees were a common sight. These gardens were created not only to grow the familiar foods from the Old Country, but because of, as you say, “love of the dirt”. The gardeners found great satisfaction in working in their gardens. The gardens not only nourished their bodies, but their souls as well.

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