Living Museum of the Almond Tree

Valley of the Temples

Discovering ancient varieties of almond

The forest of almond and olive trees 
The most characteristic plant components of the agricultural landscape of the Valley of the Temples are its olive and almond trees. It is a landscape which reminds us of an important page in the history of Sicilian agriculture: the time which, at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, saw the addition of fruit trees to the hills of the estates previously dominated by pasture and arable land. The almond tree, which blooms in the middle of winter – from December to March – with colours ranging from pure white to various shades of pink, is one of the elements that fed the myth of the eternal Sicilian spring, like that of Aragona, of which Bartels wrote (in the eighteenth century) as having “as many almond trees as stars in the Milky Way”. Together with the monumental 'Saracen olive trees', the almond tree gives life to the landscape defined as dry arboriculture because of its resistance to aridity and to the Valley's “forest of almond and olive trees”, as defined by Luigi Pirandello in his novel 'The Old and the Young'.

The extraordinary winter flowering of the almond tree has made it a symbol of the landscape of the Mediterranean "eternal spring".

Detail of the almond bloom

Field collection 
Today, despite the gradual abandonment of almond orchards because of competition from varieties considered more profitable, the landscape of the Valley of the Temples still remains a repository of considerable biological wealth, of ancient knowledge and of a material culture in the process of disappearance. In 1997, in an effort to save and preserve the biodiversity of the almond, The Living Museum of the Almond Tree was created, named after Prof. Francesco Monastra, with the support of the Soprintendenza  BB.CC.AA. of Agrigento and the Regional Province of Agrigento. A field collection that preserves about 300 varieties of ancient traditional Sicilian almond growing, recently enriched by Sicilian varietal collections of pistachio, carob and olive tree. The design follows the appearance of a traditional almond grove in which, mingled with the almond trees, there are also olive, carob, pistachio, mulberry and rowan trees, and other shrubs characteristic of the non-irrigated orchards of Sicily. The almond grove, as well as conserving biodiversity, also has the function of demonstrating, for educational purposes, traditional agricultural cultivation techniques. It will serve as a germplasm bank, for evaluating the varieties according to their landscape value up to diffusing them in order, for example, to offer continuous blooms of white or shades of pink from December to April. This may stimulate the promotion of craft productions, such as the making of pastries, related to the almond tree and its products. In the final analysis, it must not only conserve the genetic resources of the species, but also provide useful guidelines for preservation of the traditional agricultural landscape of the Valley, a unique example of an outdoor museum.

An ex situ collection of over 250 varieties from all over the island, collected before they disappeared from the traditional orchards where they were selected and grown.

The biodiversity of Sicilian almond growing

Case Fiandaca
A laboratory for the categorisation and conservation of germplasm, recently built in an old nineteenth-century farmhouse known as 'Case Fiandaca', is playing a fundamental role in the study of biodiversity and landscape restoration of degraded agricultural and natural systems for the protection and enhancement of the cultural landscape of the Valley of the Temples in the broadest sense. This is a joint project of the Archaeological and Landscape Park of the Valley of the Temples and the Department of Arboreal Cultivation of Palermo. The housing of an ethno-anthropological section is planned in the old rural house, which will collect material historical and cultural evidence, covering not only the agricultural but also the processing and transformation phases, thereby also taking traditional handicrafts and pastry-making into account. It must ultimately not only conserve the genetic resources of the species, but also provide useful information for the preservation of the traditional agricultural landscape and its values.
Traditional uses of almond trees
Traditionally, in order to make the fruits of the almond trees of the Valley fall to the ground, the branches were 'beaten' with long dry reeds that came from the Garden of Kolymbethra. Farmers would collect the reeds by the river, dry them in the sun by propping them against the orange trees, and then sell them, gathered in bundles and sorted by height, for the collection of almonds and olives, but also for the cultivation of vines and some vegetables. The fruit can be eaten whole, from its early stages (allegedly) to the hardening of the shell. The stones are used either fresh – from the month of June, when the cotyledons of the soft shell and semi-soft shell (mollesi) varieties are hardened – or dried. The stones in their dry state are used for direct consumption, especially in baking for the production of almond paste, obtained by grinding the stones and mixing them with sugar. 'Frutta martorana' (from the name of an old convent in Palermo) sold as sweets on All Souls' Day are made entirely of almond paste, while 'agnelli pasquali' sweets in the shapes of a lamb, coated with icing and sugared almonds, also have a core of pistachio paste. 'Almond milk' is another traditional product, an emulsion of sugar and almonds that have been peeled, roasted then filtered many times. Drunk cold in summer, it gives plausibility to an early nineteenth century French treaty on phytotherapy, which wrote of its beneficial effects on “hypochondriacs, novelists and poets, whose brains are fatigued by ardent efforts of the imagination and sometimes fall into a vague delirium as night falls”. As well as food, the stones are also used in pharmacopoeia. Almond oil, obtained by cold pressing, has been recognised as an analgesic and an anti-inflammatory agent, and is used both in medicine and in cosmetics. It is traditionally used in Sicily for its “refreshing and purgative qualities, using it at any time, now and then, and in times of illness” (Sestini, 1780). After extraction of the oil, the remaining flour can be used as it is or combined with wheat flour. After extraction of the seeds, the shells were once used as solid fuel. The husks were used either for animal feed or, after incineration, for the production of potassium carbonate (lye or potash) used as a fertiliser. It was also used in a soft soap, in domestic use until the 1950s, by mixing the ashes from the burnt husks with oil or animal fat. This ancient use was written of by Goethe in 1827, during his stay in Agrigento: "The bean stalks are burned, and the ash collected is useful for laundry. They do not use soap. The shells of almonds are also burnt and used in place of soda, washing laundry first with water and then with this lye”. The bark of the roots of the almond tree was used as a natural dye, while the sticky liquid exuded by the trunk, known as 'gomma del paese' (country rubber), as a substitute for gum arabic. 
Credits: Story

The exhibition was curated by Giusi Messina.
General Coordination: Giuseppe Parello, Director of Archaeological Park and Landscape of the Valley of the Temples.
Texts: Maria Ala, Calogero Liotta, Giuseppe Barbera and Francesco Sottile.
Photo: Maria Ala, Calogero Liotta.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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