The Fillirea, also commonly called Ilatro, is an evergreen shrub, of medium size, which lives spontaneously on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea; its cultivation is widespread throughout Italy, and a couple of shrub species are found in the spontaneous flora of almost all regions, even in Lombardy and Veneto. The size of an adult plant is quite conspicuous, and the older shrubs can reach 4-5 meters in height, with occasional development up to 6-7 meters. It is a shrub of the same family as the olive tree, the oleaceae, with which it shares many of the cultural requirements, and some aesthetic similarity.
The Fillirea has evergreen leaves, coriaceous, oval, and dark green, shiny; in spring the entire crown is filled with small white flowers, which bloom at the leaf axil, gathered in small racemes; the flowers are followed by the fruits: roundish drupes, small, black or purple, vaguely reminiscent of olives. In Italy only two species are common, Phillyree angustifolia, and Phillyrea latifoglia, which differ only in the different size of the foliage.
The Filliree are used as ornamental shrubs, in full earth or in pots, and also very often as bonsai, because the plant reacts very well to pruning; in particular they are used in recent years to form maxi garden bonsai, given that the foliage is particularly versatile.
These plants are not unlike the olive tree, they need to be planted in a sunny area; they tolerate frosts very well, even intense, although it is advisable to place them in an area of the garden not subject to strong winter winds, especially in the areas of Italy where the minimum winter temperatures can drop below zero for a long time. Although they can stand the cold very well, in some Italian regions they are grown in pots, so that they can easily be covered, or moved, in the case of snow or very intense and persistent frosts; in general, the damage caused by frost is more likely when the plant is kept in very damp soil.
For this reason the Filliree are buried in a very well drained substrate, so that, especially in winter, the plant sinks its roots into loose soil and free of stagnant water.
It is therefore advisable to work the soil well before laying a Phillyrea, lightening it with sand or pumice stone, in order to make it very well drained.
Plants, especially if they have been at home for a long time, tend to tolerate drought well, even during the warm months; though we have one of these shrubs in the garden, it is advisable to water it, especially in summer, when the soil is very dry, from March to September; during the cold season they do not need watering. If we live in an area with very cold winters, and we have moved our plant to a cold greenhouse, it is advisable to water sporadically, even in winter, so as to avoid leaving the plant in completely dry soil, even when the temperatures in the greenhouse are high.
So in general it is a low-maintenance garden shrub that tolerates frost and winter cold, as well as summer heat and drought; it is cultivated more or less like the olive tree, and therefore needs protection only in areas with very, very rigid, or very humid winters.
The Maxi bonsai
In recent years they are also spreading in Italy, and more and more often we can see them in the gardens and in the garden centers, they are the maxi bonsai, or "normal" sized shrubs that are however pruned like bonsai, Japanese style, so as to to give an exotic and elegant touch to the garden too. Much used to prepare these shrubs, evergreen plants are used, with already quite minute foliage, typical in Italy of olive trees and Phillyree angustifolia; but we can also admire maxi bonsai of podocarpo, of ilex, of arbutus.
And the maxi indoor bonsai, that is ficus and other indoor shrubs pruned like bonsai, are becoming all the rage, especially in stores and showrooms.
The maxi bonsai are in fact plants of common dimensions, not made small as normally occurs in bonsai art, but pruned so as to look like bonsai, with minute foliage and very well-defined forms, with the foliage that describes many small compact clouds, and clean branches.
In fact even a single specimen of maxi bonsai in the garden has a very strong impact, and also makes a corner with a single plant a focal point of the whole garden.
Therefore plants with minute foliage are often used, so that the "bonsaization" consists mainly of pruning, and not of the thousands of other cures that must commonly be dedicated to a bonsai. So the maxi bonsai don't have several tens of years, as it could happen to a real big bonsai; it is rather a sort of "imitations" of the bonsai style, which require a little skill to be prepared, but which do not require pruning at the roots, repotting, constriction in very small containers.
In essence, they look like large bonsai trees, but they are not really bonsai.
The Fillirea in herbal medicine
There phillyrea it has always been used in the popular medicine of the populations that live along the shores of the Mediterranean, to take advantage of its anti-inflammatory, tonic and purifying properties; typically in the Middle East a decoction of leaves is prepared, to be used against toothache, sore throat and cough.
In southern Mediterranean folk medicine, Phillyrea is used as a decongestant, and to treat cases of jaundice or other problems related to malfunction of the liver.
In fact, modern research has found the presence of flavonoids in the Phillyrea foliage and of compounds that protect the liver.
The leaves of some species were formerly used to dye the fabrics.