Register Saturday | July 13 | 2024

Bella di Notte

Words and images by Sara Angelucci

As the daughter of Italian immigrants, my family’s language, food and culture infused my upbringing. I grew up learning Italian and English simultaneously, since I lived with grandparents who couldn’t speak the latter; moving fluidly between two languages and two cultures. A saying I have often heard is that if you speak two languages, you are two people. Like many second-generation Canadians, this duality forms the foundation of my identity. 

Thinking about my family’s history with farming, it seemed natural to extend my botanical scanning work to the region of Le Marche on Italy’s Adriatic coast, where my family is from. In the medieval village of Montottone, my uncle and great-grandparents were the millers, while my parents and extended family were tenant farmers in the nearby village of Force. They lived off the food they grew and the animals they tended.

For many immigrants, the plants of our origins form the landscapes of our identities. In the field of ethnobotany, plants are studied in relation to local ecology and the people who use them. Through the work I’ve been doing as a settler in Ontario, I’ve seen native, introduced and invasive species growing together—some as companions, others competing for territory. Many introduced species strayed from settlers’ gardens and became naturalized, like Queen Anne’s lace (wild carrot), brought by Europeans as a medicinal herb.

As I thought about how plants migrate, I began to consider the kinds of plants my family relied upon and encountered in their daily lives. For years in Toronto I watched my Portuguese neighbour tend two tiny fig trees, which miraculously bore fruit each summer. Figs were also treasured by my parents. After immigrating in the 1950s, they wouldn’t encounter fig trees again until they returned home for the first time, seventeen years later.

For the past two years I have been scanning in and around Montottone. I have been astounded by the diversity of plants I encountered here, and by how different they are from what I see in Ontario. I’m beginning to learn about the ways plants are used for religious practices. For instance, on June 24, St. John’s Day, the saint’s “miracle water” is used to ward off evil and request blessings for the coming year. The sacred water is infused with St. John’s wort, rosemary, lavender and chamomile, each with a particular meaning. Many such traditions exist in this region.

Plants are essential for the survival of all living creatures. Biodiversity is in urgent decline, threatened by deforestation, climate change and urbanization. As we’re increasingly disconnected from nature, many species are disappearing before they’ve even been identified. I hope my work will make people pay attention to the things at our feet that we often take for granted. As all life depends on plants and the creatures they support, we neglect them at our own peril.