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Research unit of Prof. Gelsomina Fico  

Components: Prof. Gelsomina Fico, Dr. Claudia Giuliani

Collaborators: Dr. Martina Bottoni (Grant holder)

Morphological and chemical characterisation of medicinal and food plants

The research focused on the study of plant biodiversity is aimed at characterizing medicinal and food species from the morphological (my means of light microscopy, as well as scanning and transmission electron microscopy) and chemical (extraction and isolation of secondary metabolites with both qualitative and quantitative analyses) perspectives.

  • Santagostini L., Caporali E., Giuliani C., Bottoni M., Ascrizzi R., Araneo S.R., Papini A., Flamini G., Fico G. 2019. Humulus lupulus L. cv. Cascade grown in Northern Italy: morphological and phytochemical characterization. Plant Biosystems, doi: 10.1080/11263504.2019.1610111.
  • Najar B., Pistelli L., Cervelli C., Fico G., Giuliani C. 2018. Salvia broussonetii Benth.: aroma profile and micromorphological analysis. Natural Product Research 32: 1660-1668.
  • Giuliani C. Ascrizzi R., Corrà S., Maleci Bini L., Flamini G., Fico G. 2017. Ultrastructural insight into terpene-producing trichomes and essential oil profile in Salvia greggii A. Gray. Flora 236–237: 107-114.
  • Giuliani C., Ascrizzi R., Tani C., Bottoni M., Maleci Bini L., Flamini G., Fico G. 2017. Salvia uliginosa Benth.: glandular trichomes as bio-factories of volatiles and essential oil. Flora 233: 12-21.

Secondary metabolites production in relation to ecological and physiological aspects.

The production of secondary metabolites is investigated in relation to various environmental and/or endogenous factors. The biosynthesis and the accumulation of secondary metabolites can be influenced by different exogenous factors, e.g. climate, edaphic condition, habitat, stress conditions (H2O scarcity, presence of pathogens), or by plant endogenous rhythms that may vary during the ontogenetic cycle. The knowledge of plant responses to these factors are of remarkable practical interest in order to optimize the collection of the plant parts with the highest content in active principles.

  • Nkuimi Wandjou J.G., Sut S., Giuliani C., Fico G., Papa F., Ferraro S., Caprioli G., Maggi F., Dall'Acqua S. 2019. Characterization of nutrients, polyphenols and volatile components of the ancient apple cultivar ‘Mela Rosa Dei Monti Sibillini’ from Marche region, central Italy. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, doi: 10.1080/09637486.2019.1580684
  • Giuliani C., Tani C., Bini L.M., Fico G., Colombo R., Martinelli T. 2018. Localization of phenolic compounds in the fruits of Silybum marianum characterized by different silymarin chemotype and altered colour. Fitoterapia, 130: 210-218.

Biological activity of compounds of plant origin

Biological tests are aimed at investigating the role of secondary metabolites in the vital economy of the plant and at investigating the therapeutic potential for humans. In particular, the research group performs in vitro tests for the evaluation of antimicrobial, antifungal and antioxidant activity of commercial plant material and of samples obtained from cultivated or spontaneous plan (crude extracts, fractions and pure compounds suitably isolated).

  • Sangiovanni E., Fumagalli M., Santagostini L., Forino M., Piazza S., Colombo E., Taglialatela-Scafati O., Fico G., Dell'Agli M. 2019. A bio-guided assessment of the anti-inflammatory activity of hop extracts (Humulus lupulus L. cv. Cascade) in human gastric epithelial cells. Journal of Functional Foods, 57: 95-102.
  • Maggi F., Giuliani C., Fico G., Ricciutelli M., Bramucci M., Quassinti L., Petrelli D., Vitali L.A., Cianfaglione K., Tirillini B., Sut S., Dall’Acqua S. 2018. Secondary metabolites, secretory structures and biological activity of water celery (Helosciadium nodiflorum (L.) Koch) growing in central Italy. Plant Biosystems, doi. 10.1080/11263504.2018.1492992


The correct botanical characterization of plant species is of fundamental importance for both the basic scientific research and the applicative perspective, i.e. to avoid confusion between similar species with different contents in active principles, potential sophistications, improper uses of drugs and for a more targeted and aware use of plants. In particular, the research group studies some critical taxa of the Italian Flora in relation to biosystematic aspects with different methodological approaches: morphological, chemical, biomolecular.

  • Colombo S., Flamini G., Rodondi G., Giuliani C., Santagostini L., Fico G. 2017. Phytochemistry of European Primula species. Phytochemistry, 143: 132-144.
  • Giuliani C., Lazzaro L., Calamassi R., Calamai L., Romoli R., Fico G., Foggi B., Mariotti Lippi M. 2016. A volatolomic approach for studying plant variability: the case of selected Mediterranean Helichrysum (Asteraceae). Phytochemistry, 130: 128-143.


Our studies focused on the recovery of the knowledge of the plant uses in folk medicine, for food or ritual purposes and for the animal care fit within the context of the preservation and enhancement of the biodiversity conceived in a wider sense, as cultural biodiversity. Special attention is addressed to the intergenerational transmission of the information. This type of investigations represents the basis for carrying out phytochemical studies on the characterization of plant species never investigated and on the validation/refutation of the detected biological activity.

  • Bruschi P., Sugni M., Moretti A., Signorini M.A., Fico G. 2019. Children’s versus adult’s knowledge of medicinal plants: an ethnobotanical study in Tremezzina (Como, Lombardy, Italy). Brazilian Journal of Pharmacognosy, doi: 10.1016/J.bjp.2019.04.009.
  • Dei Cas L., Pugni F., Fico G. 2015. Tradition of use on medicinal species in Valfurva (Sondrio, Italy). Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 163: 113-134.

Research and experimentation in the open field at the "Giordano Emilio Ghirardi" Botanic Garden

The Ghirardi botanic garden (Scientific director since 2003: Prof. G. Fico; Curator since 2018: Dr. C. Giuliani) is located in Toscolano Maderno (Brescia).

The garden was founded in 1964 as an experimental botanical station of the Milan Pharmaceutical company SIMES (Italian Society of Medicines and Synthetics), at the behest of its owner, Giordano Emilio Ghirardi. The aim was the cultivation of medicinal species, difficult to recover, with active cardioactive and anticancer principles, e.g. the species Camptotheca acuminata, symbol of the botanic garden, with antitumoral active principles, and introduced for the first time in Italy in Toscolano Maderno. For the retrieval of the seeds, Ghirardi sent several appointees all over the world and maintained contacts with famous personalities.

This testifies to the great variety of species preserved at the garden. When SIMES was sold, the owner kept the botanic garden for scientific research. In 1991, it was donated to the University of Milan, with the clause of maintaining the direction of study and research on medicinal plants.

Since 2013, the botanic garden is annexed to the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences. Its surface is 10,000 square meters and it is located at 70 meters above sea level. The medicinal species amount to about 450. The research activities are focused on different plant species, in particular members of the Lamiaceae, Asteraceae, Myrtaceae and Lauraceae families.

The most recent lines of research are based on a multidisciplinary approach of investigation with respect to the all of the topics described above. The primary objective is the enhancement and conservation of the plant heritage of the Ghirardi botanic garden, through the performance of closely related activities.
Primarily, the micromorphology of the secreting structures responsible for the productivity in secondary metabolites is described; secondarily, the chemical profiles in volatile compounds, essential oils, epicuticular depositions and components accumulated in plant tissues are characterized.

A further level of investigation is aimed at the study of the interactions that these substances generate with the environmental biotic component; the positive interactions with the pollinators and with the microorganisms that populate the phyllosphere are studied, as well as the interactions with pathogens and pests. These aspects are relevant and place the plant "in the center"; the novelty of this type of research is the double approach (phytocentric / anthropocentric) for a global vision of the target species, in order to correlate these aspects with the potential importance for humans in the therapeutic, food or cosmetic sectors.

  • Giuliani C., Ascrizzi R., Lupi D., Tassera G., Santagostini L., Giovanetti M., Flamini G., Fico G. S. verticillata: linking glandular trichomes, volatiles and pollinators. Phytochemistry, 155: 53-60.


Department of Chemistry, University of Milan

Department of Sciences for Food, Nutrition and the Environment, University of Milan

Department of Pharmacological and Biomolecular Sciences, University of Milan

Department of Biomedical, Surgical and Dental Sciences, University of Milan

Department of Biosciences, University of Milan

Department of Pharmacy, University of Pisa

Department of Biology, University of Florence

School of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Health Products, University of Camerino

Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Salerno

Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Padua

Department of Chemistry of Natural Substances, Federico II University of Naples

Department of Experimental Pharmacology, Federico II University of Naples

UMR7079, Université Pierre and Marie Curie, Paris

Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Al-Zaytoonah University of Jordan

Center for Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Changes, University of Lisbon

Council for Agricultural Research and Agricultural Economy Analysis | CREA · Research Center for Cereal and Industrial Crops (Bologna) (CREA-CI)

Council for Agricultural Research and Agricultural Economy Analysis | CREA · Research Center for Agrobiology and Pedology (Florence) (CRA-ABP)

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