Rome’s Iconic Umbrella Pines Imperiled by Pests and the Ax (2023)



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While an invasive insect bears much of the blame for endangering a beloved symbol of Rome, critics are also pointing the finger at city government.

Rome’s Iconic Umbrella Pines Imperiled by Pests and the Ax (1)

By Elisabetta Povoledo

Reporting from Rome

The protesters who had gathered on an arid patch of lawn in Rome’s central Piazza Venezia hailed from neighborhoods all around the capital, but they had one concern in common: saving the towering umbrella pine trees that for centuries have adorned the city’s low-slung skyline but are disappearing in distressing numbers.

Celebrated in music and art, and admired by the ancient Romans, the trees are as much a part of the city’s identity as its human-made landmarks.

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“They are in the hearts, photographs and memories of everyone,” said Jacopa Stinchelli, who is helping lead the defense of the pines, which in recent years have taken a mangy turn.

An infestation of a pernicious and invasive pest, an insect known as the pine tortoise scale, which sneaked into Italy about a decade ago, has killed many trees.

In the eyes of some Romans, however, it’s not just the bugs that are to blame for the demise of so many umbrella pines, but also a city government that has sometimes struggled to deliver basic services like garbage pickup.

Critics say that the pines have been subjected to overly zealous and indiscriminate culling, with trees being removed that could still have been saved.


Though an exact census of how many umbrella pines have been recently felled in Rome does not exist, activists claim that during the past two years at least 4,000 potentially curable trees have been chopped down while many acres of pine forests in the city’s outlying areas have been destroyed by the pest.

“I don’t know where to look, I just want to cry,” said Eva Vittoria Cammerino, one participant at the protest this month, as she looked pointedly at the freshly cut pine tree stumps on the square’s lawn.

There has been road work in the square, and after one tree fell last month, several others were chopped down. Ms. Cammerino, an elected member of one of Rome’s borough-level municipal councils, said that she had formally asked for documentation to ensure that the chopped-down trees had failed the stress tests that doomed them to the ax. “We can’t let such things pass,” she said.

City officials said that such tests had indeed been carried out and that the removed trees in Piazza Venezia couldn’t be saved.

Another protester, Alessandro Cremona Urbani, said hundreds of trees had been lost in his elegant Viale Trieste neighborhood. He has mapped the missing trees on an app, and wants to know why they’re gone.

“Trees don’t commit suicide,” Mr. Cremona Urbani said. “They don’t fall on their own.”


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Others among the protesters — who chanted, “Keep your saws off Rome’s trees” while holding up signs reading “Green Slaughter” — had similar tales.

Francesca Marrangello said that two years ago, dozens of pines were felled in Villa Glori, her local park. “The extermination of a species,” she said. Local residents have now adopted some of the remaining trees in the park and are caring for them one by one.

While it’s hard to lay responsibility on Rome’s municipal government for the pest infestation, critics say the city could be doing more to preserve the pines.

Rome has dozens of parks and green areas, but the department overseeing them is “inadequate,” lacking personnel, expertise and a long-term maintenance program, said Giorgio Osti, who has been leading a push to improve the city’s approach. Many maintenance contracts are outsourced to private vendors, and critics say that city officials don’t perform enough oversight.

Where there is universal agreement is that the depletion of the pines is a blow to Rome’s sense of self.

The umbrella pine “has had enormous significance” in Rome since antiquity, said Carlo Blasi, the scientific director of a biodiversity and sustainability research center at the Sapienza University of Rome.


In October, Italy’s unofficial national orchestra, the orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, will open its season with Ottorino Respighi’s symphony “Pines of Rome.”

“This is nonsense if we have thousands of fewer trees than we did a year ago,” said Ms. Stinchelli, who works in arts and culture management. “You can’t have that dissonance — we want harmony.”

To their many admirers, the pines offer shade, filter pollution, provide delectable seeds and cool down the city’s scorching summer heat. Their distinctive shapes “best match the beauty of Rome” and the cupolas of its churches, said Ms. Marrangello.

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The pine tortoise scale, native to North America, was first spotted in Italy in Naples in 2014 and quickly spread. It swept through parts of the greater Rome municipality like a tsunami, killing entire pine forests, transforming the beloved trees into ghostly brown shadows of themselves.

The primary method to counter the pest in urban areas involves injecting a special insecticide into the tree to kill the female population. As with vaccines, there is a first dose and then a booster, which critics say has not been given to many trees.

But researchers are seeking other techniques, aware that the current costly and high-maintenance approach “can’t be an eternal solution,” said Pio Federico Roversi, the director of a national research center for plant protection. “We can’t imagine a future where for the next 100 years pines will be on a drip feed. It would no longer be nature, it would be a hospital.”

So researchers are looking into introducing from North America the pest’s natural predators, “as long as it is effective and doesn’t constitute a risk for the Italian environment,” Mr. Roversi said. They are also trying to identify local species that might be a natural antagonist.


No solution is likely to eliminate the pest problem entirely, Mr. Roversi said, but it could become manageable “so that the plants no longer suffer.”

A regional-level law was passed in 2021 that penalizes citizens and institutions that do not care for the trees on their property.

“The problem is that in this city, like in Italy, they approve laws that no one then enforces,” said Franco Quaranta, a resident who has been replanting pines with local donations in the Pineta Sacchetti, a historic Rome pine forest struggling with the pest. He has been spraying the needles of the new trees with a homemade concoction of garlic, soap and oil.

“It works,” he said, citing the insect corpses he had found on the ground when he went to water the trees.

Early this month, representatives of the protesters met with Sabrina Alfonsi, the member of Rome’s City Council responsible for the capital’s green spaces, to present a list of five demands, including treating all infested pine trees; undertaking a census of the number and health of the city’s pine population; giving priority to their care; and imposing a moratorium on culling treated pines.

Ms. Alfonsi said in an interview that the city had set aside 100 million euros, or $110 million, to care for the city’s green spaces, with the money to be allocated over three years beginning next year.


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All infected pines had been treated, she added, but in some cases it was too late to save them. The city, she said, has begun monitoring all its 350,000 trees of various species, “each with its own story” and has already assessed 80,000 trees of various species, chopping down 7,000 because they were deemed unhealthy and in danger of collapsing, an assertion that critics challenge.

When it comes to Rome’s still-standing pine trees, Ms. Alfonsi noted that after 70, 80 or even 90 years, many were approaching the end of their life span (they can live for about 150 years, according to some experts) — particularly those in busy areas of city, surrounded by traffic and asphalt and with their roots possibly damaged by roadwork.

“It’s a wonder they’ve managed to last as long as they have,” she said.

Elisabetta Povoledo is a reporter based in Rome and has been writing about Italy for more than three decades. More about Elisabetta Povoledo

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Rome’s Iconic Umbrella Pines Imperiled by Pests and the Ax? ›

Though an exact census of how many umbrella pines have been recently felled in Rome does not exist, activists claim that during the past two years at least 4,000 potentially curable trees have been chopped down while many acres of pine forests in the city's outlying areas have been destroyed by the pest.

What are the umbrella pines in Rome? ›

Worldwide Famous Italian Umbrella Tree

With long tall trunks spreading up to a flat wide canopy, the umbrella pine trees in Rome Italy are officially known as Pinus Pinea. Although they are found all over the Mediterranean, it was Mussolini who brought them to Rome and planted them in long lines along the avenues.

What does the umbrella pine symbolize? ›

Evidence suggests that an Umbrella Pine was the center of worship in Kyoto roughly a thousand years ago. In 1310, the area around the sacred tree was converted into a Buddhist temple, and the tree was absorbed into Buddhist prayers. The symbol of the Buddhist temple was that of a fertile woman.

What are the umbrella trees in Italy? ›

The stone pine, botanical name Pinus pinea, also known as the Italian stone pine, Mediterranean stone pine, umbrella pine and parasol pine, is a tree from the pine family (Pinaceae). The tree is native to the Mediterranean region, occurring in Southern Europe and the Levant.

What is the most popular tree in Rome? ›

The Italian Stone pine (Pinus pinea L.) is one of the most common ornamental trees in towns with Mediterranean climates. For example, in the city of Rome (Italy), Pinus is the most common genus, with more than 51,000 trees.

What is the history of the umbrella pine? ›

The Umbrella Pine can be traced to the Triassic period, some 250 million years ago, when the continents were joined and much of North America was near the Equator. At that time, the Japanese Umbrella Pine and its then-numerous relatives flourished in what is now Eurasia, northern Europe and northern North America.

What is the story of the pines of Rome? ›

Pines of Rome, Italian Pini di Roma, tone poem for orchestra in four movements by Ottorino Respighi, premiered in 1924 in Rome. It is the Italian composer's tribute to scenes around his country's capital, some contemporary and some recalling the glory of the Roman Empire.

What is the spiritual benefit of the umbrella tree? ›

Umbrella Tree Spiritual Meaning

In China, it is believed that the leaves of the umbrella tree capture positive energy and attract wealth.

What does 3 pines symbolize? ›

The village of Three Pines acts as a symbol of peace and serenity far away from the stress of urban life. The warmth of the village interiors stands in stark contrast to the frigid temperatures of Quebec province. Although winter can be a beautiful season, cold can kill. Three Pines seems impervious to that danger.

What are the characteristics of the umbrella pine? ›

The umbrella pine is a slow-growing evergreen conifer tree with a variable growth habit and a conical crown. It may reach a height of 30 to 70 feet in cultivation and over 100 feet in its native habitat. It provides dense shade when young, and its form is spire-like too broadly pyramidal.

Is umbrella tree a lucky plant? ›

The umbrella plant is popular in feng shui practices, as it is said to bring good luck and prosperity into the home.

Why is it called umbrella tree? ›

The umbrella tree is aptly named, with its ovular foliage grouping together to create an umbrella-like image. This plant is much like the bonsai tree varieties, growing between 4ft and 8ft high.

Are umbrella trees rare? ›

These richly textured conifers are rare and expensive in nurseries because they grow slowly and it takes a long time to grow a sapling large enough to sell. In the landscape, it can take 100 years for a sapling to reach mature size.

What is the iconic tree of Italy? ›

The Chestnut Tree of the Hundred Horses – Sicily

It's one of the oldest and most famous trees in Italy. It was awarded the title of Monument messenger of peace by Unesco in 2006.

What is the Italian tree of life? ›

The Tree of Life is the symbol of the Italian Pavilion, a place for entertainment and a global icon. The structure, designed by the creative director Marco Balich, buds from the search for a decidedly Italian symbol, representative of one of the most extraordinary periods of human genius: the Renaissance period.

What tree represents Italy? ›

The strawberry tree began to be considered one of the national symbols of Italy in the 19th century, during the Italian unification, because with its autumn colours it recalls the flag of Italy (green for its leaves, white for its flowers and red for its berries). For this reason it is the national tree of Italy.

What pine trees are in Rome? ›

The umbrella pine “has had enormous significance” in Rome since antiquity, said Carlo Blasi, the scientific director of a biodiversity and sustainability research center at the Sapienza University of Rome.

What are the street trees in Rome Italy? ›

Street Trees of Rome

More often than not each street will be planted with a single species on both sides of the road. Other common avenue plantings include Robinia pseudoacacia – Black Locust, Morus alba – White Mulberry (a non-fruiting cultivar), Celtis occidentalis – Hackberry, and Platanus sp.

What are the tall skinny pine trees in Italy? ›

The cypress tree (cipresso in Italian) is a tall, thin evergreen conifer that originated in the Middle East. It's also known as the Mediterranean cypress or the Italian cypress. Often used as windbreaks on farmland, they're also planted along roadsides and cemeteries in Tuscany.

Where did the umbrella tree come from? ›

Native to tropical Australia, New Guinea and Java, umbrella tree is a fast-growing evergreen that has spread beyond its native range in Queensland.


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