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

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.

“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 be 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 last week, as she looked pointedly at the freshly cut pine tree stumps on the square’s lawn.

There’s 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.”

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.

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 entirely eliminate the pest problem, 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’s 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’d found on the ground when he went to water the trees.

Last week, 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.

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, a claim that critics challenge.

When it comes 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 road work.

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

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