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Amidst rare plants and animals
in the shade of the beechwood It is the largest forest in the Gargano National Park. Centuries-old beeches, oaks, hornbeams, Turkey oaks, some of the oldest yews in Italy and a varied undergrowth. The fauna includes roe deer, wildcats and the very rare white-backed woodpecker by Piero Medagli
A majestic panoramic view of the Umbra Forest. Photo by Giovanni Miali (From: Terra di luce – Luoghi e paesaggi di una Puglia da vivere, by Giovanni Miali, GELSOROSSO)
The Gargano National Park, instituted in 1995, covers approximately 120.000 hectares and has the important role of safeguarding what has been happily coined as the “organic island”. In fact, although Gargano is not really an island, it is almost completely surrounded by sea and is connected to the rest of the Tavoliere Peninsula, an area mainly dedicated to agriculture, which constitutes an insurmountable barrier for most species of animals and plants.
That is why the age-old isolation of the promontory has produced, by genetic drift, a series of effects on the Gargano flora and fauna. Apart from the presence of vegetable endemisms, or rather, of species originating in loco because of problems of reproductive isolation, we can see the presence of relict species, that is, of archaic species which have disappeared elsewhere or have survived only in small areas. This isolation has also produced, in some vegetable species, phenomena of dwarfism or gigantism.
The geographical peculiarity of the Park is that of including, within a short distance, so many sandy and rocky areas, with briny lagoons, imposing forest formations and mountainous environments. The Park extends over most of the coastal strip of the Gargano promontory and in its highland area; it includes most of the Lesina Laguna and all that of the Varano Laguna, the wetlands south of Manfredonia (marshes of Frattarolo and Daunia Risi), the marine reserve of the Tremiti Isles archipelago (San Domino, San Nicola, Capraia and Pianosa) and eight reserves run by the State Forestry commission. Of those (Sfilzi, Falascone, Isola Varano, Monte Barone, Ischitella Wood, Lake Lesina, the marsh of Frattarolo and the Umbra Forest), the latter is the biggest forest in the Gargano and it occupies a large part of the north-east portion of the promontory. The highest point reaches 830 meters approximately (Monte Iacotenente), descending to 200 meters in the zone of Caritate.
The distinguishing feature of the Umbra Forest is the beech wood, that is a forest complex in which the beech (Fagus sylvatica) represents the prevailing species. This beech wood extends over 3.200 hectares and its surprising peculiarity is that it stands at much lower altitudes than the beech woods present in the Appennines because of the “oceanity” of the climate, that is, because of the elevated presence of rain and humidity caused by the particular geographical position of the promontory, which juts out into the Adriatic Sea. In fact, the forestry expert Alberto Hofmann defined the Gargano beech wood as “depressed” due to its atypically low level. But it is the low altitude itself that has encouraged the penetration of several types of trees and bushes. So we can observe stretches of beech wood mixed with oaks, mainly Turkey oak (Quercus cerris) and Italian oak (Quercus frainetto) or other broad-leaved trees such as linden, maples, elms and hornbeams. In certain places, the white hornbeam becomes dominant until it forms an almost pure population. Amongst the species of undergrowth which stand out there are European spindle (Euonymus europaeus), the well-known holly with its red fruits and leaves with prickly edges, a rare sight in Puglia, the laurel (Daphne laureola), the European black elder (Sambucus nigra). In the damp, shady brushwood there are various kinds of ferns like maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes), hart’s-tongue fern (Phyllitis scolopendrium) and the common male fern (Dryopteris filix-mas). In the clearings we have some belladonna (Atropa belladonna), a species much used in medicine. Ramsons (Allium ursinum) and primulas (Primula acaulis) are also quite common. The wild strawberry is well-known (Fragaria vesca) and is found in spring in the clearings and the flowers of the common primula (Primula vulgaris). In the beechwood there are numerous examples of beeches of exceptional dimensions, like the centuries-old ones in the localities of Fontana Sfilzi, Valle del Tesoro and Sorgentola, that have given it its name and stand erect to form a column of dense weave of foliage, that, like a ceiling, obstruct the penetration of sunlight towards the soil. It is just this dense vegetation that characterizes this forest and has given it its name of “Umbra”, that is, shady. Also the yew (Taxus baccata), which also goes by the name of “tree of death” is present at Sfilzi with some monumental specimens that are thousands of years old, amongst the oldest in Italy. The name is due to the toxicity of the seed, while the red husk which contains it, called the aril, is sweet and non-toxic. The beech wood turns, more or less brusquely, into oak wood with a prevalence of Turkey oak (Quercus cerris) and it is this that constitutes the most widespread wood of all the Gargano. The railway beams for the Apulian railway system have been made for decades from its wood. There are also some areas of chestnut trees which however are of anthropic origin in the Umbra Forest.
As far as the fauna is concerned, the roe deer deserves a special mention. The population of this rare deer in the Gargano is made up of about 50-60 individuals. Gargano, Tenuta di Castelporziano (near Rome) and Monti dell’Orsomarso (Calabria) are the last localities in which this herbivore is present, since it is in dramatic decline due to the reduction of natural areas suitable for its survival. The wildcat has been luckier (Felix sylvestris); an excellent climber which loves taking refuge in hollow trunks, there are about 7-800 specimens in the Umbra Forest. Areas of mature forest, with some extremely old trees, encourage the presence of five species of woodpecker, amongst which the rare white-backed woodpecker (Picoides leucotus), on the red list of Birds of Italy. It is the rarest woodpecker in Italy, with only a few hundred specimens.
A forest, therefore, that is a real treasure chest of biodiversity; a must for naturalists and nature lovers.
WHERE: Foresta Umbra - Parco Nazionale del Gargano (FG)