Impressions of Rome: Trees and Flowers in the City

I grew up in the city of Portland, Oregon, and since my family lived somewhat in the suburbs (at 48th Avenue and Killingsworth Street), we always had many trees, shrubs and flowers to admire. Even when taken for granted, which was most of the time I suppose, they at least set the tone for the neighborhood, verses those closer to city center, more likely resembling an “asphalt jungle,” as urban settings are often called.

Nonetheless the great Northwest was and is a land of trees and forests, flowers and bushes, so a city like Portland is overall perhaps a more pleasant one than a less flora-abundant city like Rome.

There are the famous pines here, of course, with their very long trunks and then umbrella like greenery (recall too the 1924 orchestral piece by Ottorino Respighi, “The Pines of Rome”). The trees are majestic, but not super-abundant, and somewhat few and far between.

There are also orange trees, such as in the formal Orange Garden, formerly part of the cloister of the Dominican friars at Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill. The city has lemon, palm, poplar and other trees as well, all of them helping to soften the landscape of a city, like any, that cannot completely hide the predominance of cement, metal and glass of urban sprawl, not to mention the presence of trash, anything but beautiful.

Rome’s tree-lined Via Lungotevere, leading to and from the Vatican along the Tiber River is always a pleasant sight and a relief for walkers like myself on hot spring and summer days. These trees, perhaps ash, appear to be not more than fifty or sixty years, perhaps having replaced ones of an earlier era.

Small gardens of roses and other flowers are part of the city’s landscape too, including the beautiful rose garden between Circo Massimo and the Aventine Hill. This was once a Jewish cemetery that Benito Mussolini mindlessly leveled and at least replaced with roses. A few poignant reminders are placed around the garden, explaining what the even now tranquil place once was. The garden is adjacent to the contemplative Camaldolese Benedictine nuns of San Antonio monastery on the Aventine.

Flowerbeds appear at the bases of many monuments in Rome and are noticeable particularly in the spring as are the omnipresent jasmine bushes, with their unmistakable fragrance, gracing the sides of buildings, climbing across trees and covering cement, brick and stone walls. Not to be forgotten either are all the splendid potted plants, especially azaleas that adorn the majestic Piazza di Spagna (the Spanish Steps) each spring and throughout the summer. These are a particular favorite of visitors to Rome.

In addition to the natural and man-made “beauty of flora” in Rome, there is no shortage of outdoor flower stands around the city, some larger than others, but all of them displaying fresh cut flowers and plants for sale every day of the year.

Presumably the flowers and plants are obtained from distribution places in the wee hours of the morning so that venders can begin selling them at daybreak. Many of the displays of the flowers and plants for sale are eye-catching and one of them in particular, on the edge of the popular Trastevere neighborhood nearby, always grabs my attention when I go past on regular walks that I try to take every day for some physical exercise.

For much of the year our small garden at Sant’Ambrogio, consisting of flowers, fruit trees (lemon and tangerine), vegetables and lettuce, provides decorations for our chapel, food for the table, and shade in which to sit and read or meditate in this relatively quiet spot in a bustling city.

No more than sixty by fifty feet, the little rectangular oasis in the middle of our compound is cultivated by monks here, and while relatively tiny, the garden is a multi-purpose space for beautifying our places of worship and dining, also offering some silence in the city.

All during Lent we did not have flowers in our chapel, the usual custom in monasteries at least, to keep things more austere during the weeks leading up to Easter. By Easter Sunday, though, April 16th this year, we had an abundance of white calla lilies in our garden with which to decorate our chapel. Fortunately the calla lilies kept blooming during most of Eastertide.

Over the fifty days of Paschaltide, (the Easter season), flowers in our garden, including roses and others of various colors, whose names I don’t even know in English, let alone Italian, came in handy for decorating our chapel.

By the day before Pentecost I could see that there was nothing ready or red in our garden to go in chapel for the ending of the Easter season on Pentecost Sunday. Red is an essential Pentecost color, representing the tongues of fire that appeared over the heads of the Apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary on Pentecost.

Determined to have red flowers in the chapel by First Vespers before Pentecost Sunday, right after breakfast Saturday morning I went to the vendor in Trastevere and purchased twelve large and deep red Gerber Daisies. The cost was less than one dollar per flower. The florist arranged them nicely with some greenery (free of charge) and the red daises made a terrific arrangement in front of the Paschal candle in our Sant’Ambrogio chapel.

I left the Pentecost arrangement of red flowers in chapel for some days after the solemnity. Even with the green, “Ordinary Time” altar cloth, hopefully the chapel did not look to “Christmas-like” with the prominence of the colors green and red in the room.

Indoors and out, Rome is not entirely bereft of natural beauty in the form of plant life, great and small.