With a climate as already described and the heavy rainfall it experiences, Monte Cucco Park could not possibly avoid being extremely green and lush. Indeed, the Park is covered with meadows and woods, many of which are composed of wonderful high trees, above all beech-trees. Some of the valleys in the area, like those of the Rio Freddo or the Rio delle Prigioni, are exposed towards the east and sheltered towards the south-west; a situation which accentuates the climatic conditions, creating small cold, damp micro-climates which are conducive to the growth of “Alpine” type vegetation.
A proof of this is the luxuriance and extent of the forests of tall trees, which almost entirely cover the eastern slopes of the Park. These woodlands contain examples of beech-trees, maples, ilex trees, chestnuts, yews and ancient white hornbeams. There are also rare examples of silver firs: remnants of the original native forests once covering the Apennines. The woodlands on the eastern slopes have managed to survive over time mainly because the harshness of the environment. The lack of access routes largely discouraged the brutal and indiscriminate tree-felling which other parts of Umbria suffered from the end of the 16th century onwards. During this period, an increase in the population coupled with social and economic development led to a progressive impoverishment of the forest cover in the region: from 75% in 1750 to the present day 30%. Evidence of the consequences of deforestation can be found in the western reaches of the Park, an area which is considerably steeper but more accessible. Here, the felling of trees for firewood and charcoal-making has transformed the original woodland into coppice, which is both impenetrable and of little value. No examples of the indigenous forest trees are left: such as the silver firs, beeches, and oaks which once dominated the western slopes of the Apennines. If we examine photographic evidence of the present situation, we can see that the very highest slopes are almost exclusively covered with grassland meadows. These can also be found in those areas where the ground is level or not too inclined, and where deforestation over the centuries has created new pastures or small fields for cultivating crops. Ranco del Piano, Ranco Selvatico, La Fida, Fonte S.Giglio and Le Cese are all places where crops were regularly grown up to 50 years ago, including wheat. From May throughout most of the Summer these fields are full of huge variety of gorgeously coloured flowers: asphodel, narcissi, anemones, fire lilies, polypodies, fritillaries, Apennine campanulas, and gentians are some of the most recognizable and most beautiful. After rainy days, it is not unusual to find examples of edible mushrooms hidden in the grass.
The mountainous areas lying at between 900 and 1,500 m are generally covered by forests of tall trees, and these are the most attractive places to come and visit, at every season of the year. This is the kingdom of the great beech-trees, with their thick crowns and slender, bare trunks: trunks which bear the mass of leaves upwards for dozens of metres to fight for a chink in the canopy. The area under the trees is quite clear and open, lit by the few rays of the sun which are able to penetrate through. One can walk on a soft carpet of fallen leaves, only occasionally interrupted by the odd holly-bush, or drifts of fragrant wild garlic, which produces a mass of white flowers in May. More rarely, one can find examples of Solomon’s seal, the extraordinary white flower hidden beneath its huge leaves. There are quite a few specimens of yew-trees, known as the “donkey-killer tree”. Until a few decades ago, it was systematically rooted out by farmers and foresters, both because of the high toxicity of every part of the tree (apart from its red berries), and because the wood is simultaneously hard and supple, and so extremely suitable for making arches and inlay-work.
There are a few examples of the Alpine laburnum, which is hardly noticeable when it is not flowering, but is spectacular when covered with great bunches of bright yellow blooms, which contrast vividly with the intense green of the beech-leaves. Very occasionally, in particular corners of the Park ( the Forra di Rio Freddo, and Niccolo), one comes across examples of silver fir trees, probably the last remnants of the ancient native forests and surviving as a result of the reforestation programmes carried out until a few decades ago. On these mountain plains there are many examples of maples and wild cherries (both large and small) and also specimens of the very rare white hornbeam. In Springtime the meadows and little patches of land between the woods are carpeted with flowers: white snowdrops, mauve crocuses, yellow buttercups, violets, primroses, forget-me-nots and wild orchids. Amongst this great mixture of perfumes there is also the scent from the tiny leaves of wild mint. At the end of Spring or in the first days of Summer, in the hidden clearings of the woods where a little more light manages to penetrate, the delicate pink Turk’s cap lily bursts into flower. For the patient walker, who enjoys the good things of life there are some wonderful delicacies to be found: sweet wild strawberries, newly ripened, and little bunches of delicious redcurrants. With a little more patience, one may also discover some clutches of wild chives, that herb which plays such an important role in traditional cooking.
The same cannot be said for the poisonous hemlock which grows profusely at this height: instantly recognizable with its white, umbrella-shaped flowers. The pretty, white hellebore is also common. At heights of under 1000 m, there are many more species of plant, some aromatic, but the woods become increasingly thick as one descends, eventually turning into dense, spiny undergrowth, only penetrable by following the marked paths. The dominant species of tree are the hornbeam, the manna ash, various types of maple, the common ash, the dogwood, the wild cherry, the hazel-nut (known locally as the filbert or "avellana"), the strawberry tree, the butcher’s broom, the wild laurel, and the box-tree. The ilex, the downy oak, and the Turkey oak need an environment which is well exposed to the sun. The ilex is often to be found clinging to the steep limestone cliffs, with its roots forcing their way into the cracks. These dwarf trees, which appear as little dark dots on the rock-face, have been there for more than a hundred years. The butcher’s broom is often to be seen growing in damp, shady positions. Towards the valley and on the lowest slopes, there are many examples of the invasive locust-tree, wrongly known as the acacia, with its characteristic bunches of white flowers. This tree serves little purpose, as it provides neither adequate shade nor useful timber. Woods of evergreen oaks (ilex) can now only be found in very restricted areas, but are more common in the more inland parts of the Vercata, above the Purello. Even rarer is the “sugheraria” tree, a natural cross between the Turkey oak and the cork tree and so a hybrid of evergreen and deciduous varieties. This is only to be found in very small areas in the mountains of Sigillo. In the clearings and beside the paths grows an abundance of wild herbs (savory, thyme and chives) which, especially on hot days, fill the air with their aromatic scent.
This is also a prime location for finding truffles and the most highly-prized varieties of funghi, such as the “porcini” (boletus), and the orange-capped “ovole”. Recently, rare examples of ephedra have been found growing on the reddish-coloured walls of the Orrido del Ponte a Botte. This is a bushy, deciduous shrub, with small, scale-like leaves and tiny flowers. Both at high levels and down towards the valley, the courses of the rivers and torrents are distinctly marked out by the abundance of plants growing along their banks. The most common trees here are grey willows, black and white poplars and elms. This is a unique habitat, which must be cared for if we want to conserve the rare animal species which are either permanent residents or occasional visitors. As one descends into the valley, the landscape becomes increasingly agricultural and man-made. This is the Alta Valle del Chiascio, an area of scattered towns and settlements. It is still a very attractive place, however. Here and there one can see fields surrounded by lines of poplars, willows, maples or oaks, remnants of farming practices of long ago.
Without harking back nostalgically to the situation which existed in the Umbria-Marche Apennines up to a few decades ago, let us examine the prevalence and variety of wild animals to be found in the Park...
The Grotto of Monte Cucco, with over 30 kilometres of galleries and a maximum depth of over 900 metres, is one of the most important subterranean cave systems in Europe and certainly one the best-known...