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St. John’s wort (Hypericum triquetrifolium). Photo by Francesco Minonne
There are a lot of wild plants associated with fig trees and their farming in Puglia. Amongst these are principally wild bay and wild fennel, used as aromas when preparing dried fruits, the common reed and the asphodelus, used in the manufacture of the interwoven mats (cannizzi) on which the figs were laid out to dry, and the wild carrot, whose tough stalk was used to pierce the fruits of the common figs that were hung from the fig branches to enable impollination.
However, we want to draw attention to a really frugal plant, whose appeal lies in its delicate resistance, in its common but forgotten presence. The plant in question is St. John’s wort (Hypericum triquetrifolium) of the Hypericaceae family, known in some areas of Puglia as fumulu and common to all arid terrains, in the old meadows, in the rocky, sun-scorched lands where the wind pulls it out of the ground and makes it tumble and soar like clouds of smoke (from this the dialect name).
Before the introduction of the interwoven stalks of reeds, an even more archaic method was used for the drying of figs; that of smoothed-out beds of dry-stone (spase and littere in Low Salento dialect), on which a dry grate of our fumulu was spread.
This, gathered and laid out on the dry stones, made for the perfect aeration of the figs, exposed to the sunshine before their baking in the dry-stone ovens which were to be found all over rural Puglia.
This little hypericum, with its numerous delicate intensely yellow little flowers that bloom in the fiery Apulian summers, was well known by farmers and shepherds for other reasons, like making little brushes for the cleaning of ovens or small stone surfaces, and also for its poisonous effects on certain grazing animals. It’s interesting to hear what the old shepherds had to say about this plant that provoked problems in the lips of their “delicate” sheep, while it had no effect on the sheep farmed for their dark hides and wool; so they prevented the former type from nibbling it, but if it happened by mistake they said that the sheep would have “fumulato”, or rather, suffer the specific stinging effects of the fumulu.
St. John’s wort is a plant that is present in the southern area of Europe that faces onto the Mediterranean basin; it is found in the regions of southern Italy, Spain, Greece, Mediterranean islands like Cyprus and Malta, where they use it, in the peasant culture, in similar ways to those described in Puglia.