The battle is on to save Rome’s umbrella pine trees – as much a part of the landscape of the Italian capital as its ancient monuments – from a deadly parasite.
The trees, which offer respite from Rome’s summer heat, have become infested with pine tortoise scale, insects originally from North America that are capable of killing pines in two to three years.
The parasite arrived in Rome three years ago and has infested 80% of the estimated 1m pine trees that adorn the city’s streets, parks and nearby coastal areas.
After protests by environmental and cultural associations, as well as Rome residents, Nicola Zingaretti, the president of the surrounding Lazio region, said €500,000 (£435,000) would be set aside to try to save the pine trees, which he said were “a natural and cultural part of the city’s heritage that must be preserved”.
“We have taken onboard the alarm cry launched by many Rome citizens and associations,” Zingaretti wrote on Facebook. “The Lazio region will do its part.”
A programme to save the trees was drawn up in 2019 by Lazio and Rome authorities but has been hampered by the coronavirus pandemic. “Now the situation requires immediate action,” said Zingaretti. He added that while thousands of new trees were being planted across Lazio as part of a project called Ossigeno (Oxygen), the priority should be saving the ones that already exist.
The plan could involve injecting the trunks of the trees with treatments to fight the parasite, which feeds off a pine tree’s sap and bark, causing the spread of a thick black mould that leads to extreme needle loss.
The parasite arrived in Campania in 2014, where it has killed thousands of stone pines in and around the regional capital, Naples, and has since moved up the coast to Rome. Italia Nostra, a heritage group, said a “mass intervention” was needed as the trees were “about to die out”.
In some areas of Rome, for trees that are on the verge of death the only solution has been to cut them down, sparking protests from residents. Poor maintenance over the years has exacerbated the problem, residents say.
“It’s a shame it has come to this,” said Silvia Barbati, who lives in the Trieste district of Rome. “The pine trees are the identity of the neighbourhood, and cutting them down is like taking away a piece of history. They should have been taken care of earlier. Maintenance of green spaces should be carried out all year round, not just before municipal elections.”