The country of Italy is much like the United States in that gardeners experience different climate zones and soil types depending on their local regions. The country has the coastal lands of the Mediterranean Sea, the fertile, rolling countryside of Tuscany, urban metropolitan areas like Rome and Milan and the alpine regions of the Italian Alps where the country shares mountainous terrain with Switzerland. If you want a touch of Italy in your own home garden design, there are plenty of Italian favorites for most any USDA hardiness zone.
Helianthus is another name for this favorite of Italian gardeners. Driving through the Italian countryside, you will see fields upon fields of large golden sunflower heads wafting over a sea of greenery created by the individual stems of each plant. Variations on the classic sunflower with its large, dark brown center rimmed with long individual yellow petals can be found in the deepest reds and rusts, brightest florescent oranges, pale yellows and in combinations of all these colors. One commercial grower available in Europe and America has presented a sunflower with nearly white petals called "Italian Ice." Sunflowers often appear to have life-like characteristics as the large seed heads of the plant "follow" the sun as it progresses through the day. Heights of different varieties range from dwarf plants of approximately a foot tall to the "mammoth" and "giant" plants that tower to 14 feet high. The flower heads on the latter may reach up to 10 inches wide. Sunflowers prefer well-drained soil rich in organic matter such as humus and require long, warm growing seasons of full-sun days.
Foeniculum vulgare is the scientific name for fennel or as they call it in Italian, "Finnochio" or Florence fennel in reference to the city of Florence, Italy. It is used in both edible and ornamental gardens. The seeds are the licorice or anise-like taste in pepperoni and Italian sausages. In seed form, it is considered a spice, while the fennel's bulb, stalks and feathery leaves are considered an herb. Italian cooks are fond of brushing a bit of olive oil over slices of the vegetable and then grilling. The leaves are often used as garnish or finely chopped and used to flavor entrees and salads. Gardeners may plant seeds directly into the garden or purchase fennel seedlings from garden centers.
Basil's scientific name is Ocimum basilicum and it is a member of the mint family, although the flavor lends itself to herbaceous, savory dishes as opposed to sweeter recipes. A relatively undemanding plant, basil simply needs a lot of warm, sunny weather and a moderate amount of water. It may be planted in the garden after all danger of frost has passed. The variety most often associated with Italian gardens is Genovese basil. It may be planted in rich, friable soil as seed--planted 2 to 3 inches apart or as seedlings purchased from your local garden center. Genovese basil is the prominent star in making pesto, as well as in Caprese salad, which consists of sliced tomatoes, whole leaves of Genovese basil and fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese. Basil is also the herb associated with that distinctive "Italian" taste detected in tomato sauces and traditional Italian dishes.