We recorded 83 taxa belonging to 35 families (see Appendix). Sixteen taxa were common to all the villages and eight of them were mentioned by at least 20% of interviewees in each village. The most relevant taxa included forest fruits (Fragaria vesca L. and Rubus ulmifolius Schott), wild and semi-domesticated fruits (Malus sylvestris Mill., Prunus domestica L., and Pyrus spp.), green wild plants (Taraxacum campylodes G.E. Haglund. and Chenopodium bonus-henricus L.) as well as a single medicinal plant (Malva spp.). The most well-represented families were Asteraceae (14 taxa), Rosaceae (12 taxa), and Lamiaceae (7 taxa).
As recorded in other Italian contexts (Mattalia et al. 2019b), fewer wild plants are used for medicinal purposes than for food uses, probably because people have been relying on the National Health System for a long time now (Table 2). The most recorded food uses were “boiled (and stir fried),” “soup,” and “raw” for green leafy plants, and “jam,” “liquor,” and “raw” for fleshy fruits. However, a few more complex recipes were also reported, for instance, as dumpling filling or pasta sauce.
Residents in the National Park have a long tradition of foraging, not only for home-consumption as in the other villages, but also for gathering medicinal plants for sale to pharmaceutical companies (Archival documents of the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo, Lazio e Molise). Indeed, an aged interviewee reported having rented a donkey to harvest different varieties of Gentiana spp. and Atropa belladonna L. for sale.
The Relevance of Wild Fruits
Over 20% of the recorded taxa were wild fruits, which were for the most part eaten raw and processed as jam, followed by liquors, and some medicinal teas. Preserves were particularly important in the past as for a few months in wintertime the ground is covered with metres of snow and consequently no fresh wild plants are available. Most of those fruits belong to the Rosaceae family and four of them to the genus Prunus. Many interviewees, particularly within the National Park, recalled the use (mainly in the past) of melucce and perucce, wild apples and pears, respectively. They were often used in salty recipes such as preserved in salt and vinegar (and then in salad), vinegar and olive oil, salt and water, but also baked in a woodstove (after bread has been baked) and preserved with wine and sugar to be eaten after a fermentation process in the cellar. Some informants reported having matured fruits in straw when they used to cultivate wheat.
The survival of ecosystems that produce such fleshy fruits are crucial not only for the maintenance of ethnobotanical knowledge of local populations but also for sustaining Ursus arctos marsicanus, a bear endemic to Central Italy that survives in a small population at high risk of extinction (Morini et al. 2017) and bases its diet on many of the wild fruits listed by local inhabitants. Indeed, Opi inhabitants observed that wild pears and apples “were so good, but maybe it [the decline of the bear population] was due to hunger” and so now “we leave wild pears and apples to the bears.”
Moreover, an informant in Pescopennataro provided a recipe for bronchitis using pomegranate skin, dry figs, apple, sugar, bay leaves, and barley boiled together, which is similar to ones reported in Calabria (Mattalia et al. 2020).
The Unbreakable Bond Between “Orapi” and Sheepherding
Orapi (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) was reported in all the study sites, but especially in Opi where 100% of the interviewees mentioned it. This wild plant was often referred to in two narratives. The first one concerned changes in the pastoral landscape and the second one the revival and economic importance of the landscape for young local foragers.
Many local inhabitants reported that orapi grows abundantly in places where sheep stop (stazzi) or graze as their manure greatly contributes to its growth. Indeed, many villagers noted that the disappearance of sheep herding, which characterized the area for many centuries, resulted in a decrease of orapi, thus confirming the findings of Guarrera and Manzi (2005).
At the same time, both local and outside factors have encourage local young people to forage for orapi to sell in the market (for 10 € per kilo), including the need for more specialized foragers as it is more difficult to find it today, an ageing population, as well as the increasing popularity of this wild plant and growing demand for supply to local restaurants. However, some locals consider the revival of this plant “weird” as “until few years ago, no one wanted to eat it because it comes from sheep feces.”
Orapi is generally boiled, stir-fried, prepared in soups, pasta such as gnocchetti, or as dumpling filling, and sometimes frozen for later consumption. Orapi is characterized by quite a strong taste that does not require further seasoning. Due to its (decreasing) availability in mountain pastures (up to 2000 masl), orapi was also reported to be eaten by shepherds, thus representing one of the elements of the local pastoral diet. Informants reported that it is possible to buy not only orapi but also fragoline (Fragaria vesca), which is widely used for liquor making. Casselle (Bunias erucago L.), wild leafy plants prepared like orapi, was also reported to be an important resource in all the study sites except Opi.
In order to prevent the overexploitation of wild resources, and due to their location within an important conservation area, the park administration imposed some limitations on forest and pasture foraging for personal use by local inhabitants. Specifically, these regulations, applied to some areas, restricts the harvest of Fragaria vesca and Rubus idaeus L. to 0.3 kg per family per day, and of Rubus ulmifolius, Asparagus acutifolius L., Juniperus communis L., Cichorium intybus L., Taraxacum campylodes, and Chenopodium bonus-henricus to 1 kg per family per day. Moreover, despite being widely utilized locally, the harvest of any part of a species belonging to the genus Gentiana spp. is forbidden (Ente Autonomo Parco Nazionale D’Abruzzo, Lazio E Molise 2011).
Ethnobiological Traces of Centuries-Long Pastoral Activity
In addition to orapi, other species were mentioned in relation to pastoral activities, and in particular three products: escargot, wine, and artichoke-like plants.
Escargots - locally called ciammarughe - were often referred to as a typical pastoral meal as they were collected during grazing time, preserved in jars until they could be cleaned, and then boiled with some wild herbs such as Clinopodium nepeta (L.) Kuntze, Origanum vulgare L. or Thymus spp. Many interviewees reported this tradition but also claimed that they do not prepare such food anymore. However, the use of these gastropods is still vivid in the local collective ethnobiological memory and several interviewees recounted: “we celebrated when shepherds brought the snails from the mountains (and especially from Monte Greco),” and also the proverb “in the months with ‘r’ snails should not be eaten” as they are hard and not tasty. Moreover, many people reported the preparation methods as indeed “la lumaca s’ha da curà”, meaning that the escargots have to be prepared and in particular by feeding them large leaves and washing them with water and salt twice, and then with water and vinegar, before cooking them with Clinopodium. Escargots are also considered a remedy for a stye by applying one locally, and “when the animal dries up the stye will also dry.” Moreover, these gastropods are believed to cure ulcers if they are eaten alive.
Wine (as well as olive oil) was one of the most important products “imported” through Apulian transhumance, brought back by returning shepherds. Specifically, a few interviewees reported that walnut fruits (Juglans regia L.) were infused into a carboy of red wine that came from Apulia on Saint John’s Day (June 24th). The carboy was later exposed to the sun, until it was ready to be drunk as a liqueur. Also, Gentiana spp. was reported to be infused in white wine which might also have its origin in transhumant movements. This shows the crucial importance of transhumance for the local culture (Pratesi and Tassi 1998) and the possible osmosis of knowledge and practices between Abruzzo and Apulia.
Interviewees reported three different wild artichokes, a typical pastoral food, including Carlina acanthifolia All. subsp. acanthifolia, whose buds were eaten raw, Centaurea calcitrapa L., whose whorls were boiled, and Dipsacus fullonum L., whose young aerial parts were boiled with chili or eaten raw with vinegar during times of famine (for instance, after the Second World War). Such records bear witness to past uses of local resources that were often encountered by chance during agro-pastoral activities. Their consumption generally ceased with the decline of those traditional practices. Informants also highlighted the paramount importance of sheep in the past and provided a number of medicinal remedies using sheep products, such as the topical application of a wool cloth for toothache and earache, and the application of the entrails of a sheep partly eaten by a wolf on the abdomen of a pregnant woman to prevent miscarriage.
Traditional Knowledge Erosion
Myriam D’Andrea conducted research between 1977 and 1979 in the then Abruzzo National Park entitled “The official plants of Abruzzo National Park and their folk uses in the Upper Sangro Valley” that included the villages of Opi and Barrea for which she recorded the use of 53 wild plant taxa for food, medicinal, and veterinary purposes, approximately half of which we also identified in our study (D’Andrea 1982). We also observed that medicinal uses of multifunctional taxa (having both food and medicinal purposes) were no longer in use and the loss of knowledge regarding veterinary remedies. Our informants reported that Cichorium intybus, Gentiana dinarica Beck., Juglans regia, Juniperus communis, Prunus spinosa L. and Rubus ulmifolius are used only as food although D’Andrea (ibid.) reported their additional medicinal uses. Moreover, none of our informants listed the five taxa (Borago officinalis L., Elymus repens (L.) Gould, Juglans regia, Juniperus sabina L. and Marrubium vulgare L.) she reported as used for veterinary treatments.
The shared uses we recorded included Chelidonium majus latex for treating warts, Crataegus laevigata as a sedative and a cardiotonic, Malva spp. infusion for abdominal pain relief and as a laxative, Matricaria recutita as a tranquilizer, the flowers of Sambucus nigra as a laxative, and Tilia cordata infusion as a panacea, and as food Gentiana spp., Prunus spinosa, Juniperus communis, and Juglans regia. The erosion of ethnomedicinal knowledge may be due to the availability of cheap and effective medicinal preparations and access to free medical advice and treatment in every village. The loss of ethno-veterinary knowledge, also observed in other Mediterranean contexts (e.g., Bullitta et al. 2007; Benítez et al. 2012), may be the consequence of social changes including industrialization and urbanization that resulted in the rapid decline of traditional practices including small-scale animal breeding. We found only common, easily identified and familiar plants remain in use.
Forest Traditional Knowledge
We found seven different categories of wood uses, including firewood, the most common (Fagus sylvatica L. is considered good for barbecues), kitchen tools (such as mortars for salt, bottles, ladles, wine vats), building materials (such as tiles, ceiling beams, railway tracks), agricultural tools (pitchforks, shepherd’s crooks, animal collars, fencing, etc.), handicrafts (e.g., statues), charcoal for cooking, and furniture (chairs, tables, etc.) (Table 3). Some interviewees reported that many wild strawberries (Fragaria vesca) grow in the charcoal making area.
Local sawmills closed around 50 years ago, and current biodiversity policies do not allow significant exploitation of forest resources. The Park administration is responsible for harvesting forest wood, which is used mainly for “uso civico” (“civic use”) such as providing households with reasonably priced firewood.
The Correlation of Remote Locations with TEK
The ethnobotanical data we recorded do not show any correlation between remoteness of the village (according to the classification of the “Strategy for Inner Areas”) and the richness of TEK. In the case of Barrea (ultraperipheral), we recorded a larger number of taxa compared with Opi (peripheral), while conversely in Gamberale (ultraperipheral) we recorded fewer taxa than in Pescopennataro (peripheral). We consider that TEK is affected by many different socioeconomic factors including services available in the village. The classification of the “Strategy for Inner Areas” does not recognize the presence or absence of basic services such as minimarkets, post offices, elementary schools, and pharmacies, but only the distance to a central municipality. We believe that the presence of these basic services may affect TEK more than the distance to a town.
In addition, TEK includes an important component of practice that is crucial to maintain the knowledge over the time. Currently the practice of foraging for wild food and medicinal plants is no longer necessary for subsistence, even although it would serve to pass on local TEK from the older generation who generally maintain it to younger generations.
Effects of Distance from SNSs on Local TEK
The ethnobotanical data we recorded do not show any significant differences between sites located close to or distant from SNSs. Opi, which is located only 6 km away from the SNS of Madonna di Monte Tranquillo SNS (close), reported approximately 26% fewer taxa, including both current and past uses, than Barrea (distant). This may lead us to conclude that the SNS has a negative influence on TEK. However, when we asked our informants about the SNSs in the vicinity, most of the villagers of Opi and Barrea responded with the more distant Shrine of Madonna del Canneto located in Latium, toward which they felt a deep bond, mainly related to the millennial pilgrimages from several Abruzzo and Latium villages. Therefore, the closer site may not have affected TEK because of its irrelevance to the inhabitants of Opi.
The same scenario occurs for Gamberale, which is close to the SNS of Madonna dell’Altare, a hermitage that had a small community some centuries ago. The villagers more often mentioned a local chapel they had recently renovated with to local donations and only one informant mentioned the closer SNS. In this case, the number of past and currently used taxa mentioned in Gamberale was around 21% fewer than in Pescopennataro (further from our selected SNS). However, we do not attribute this difference to the distance to the SNS because it was never inhabited by a monastic community that could have introduced scholarly knowledge into the community (Mattalia et al. 2019a). Moreover, folk devotion to religious rituals (such as processions, pilgrimages on foot, praying the rosary in rural chapels) is decreasing all over Italy (Pew Research Center 2018), also resulting in a decrease in time spent in contact with “nature.”
Finally, the difference in TEK in Pescopennataro may be due to the large number of elderly inhabitants who moved to Northern Italy (mainly the Milan area) many decades ago but still spend the summer in the village and continue to value their local knowledge and identity. The large number of past uses of ethnobotanical resources recorded in Barrea may be due not only to the importance of pastoralism in the area but also to the landscape modification that occurred with the creation of an artificial lake in the 1950s.