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What Is Terra Rosa?

By M. Haskins
Updated May 21, 2024
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Terra rosa is the name of a certain type of residual soil, and is also known as terra rossa, which is the correct spelling of the Italian term for red soil. Deposits of this soil can vary from orange to reddish brown and various shades of red in color. Terra rosa is mainly found in areas where the underlying bedrock consists of limestone, and is created when limestone weathers and erodes, producing a mix of clay and sand that contains iron oxide, giving the soil its color. This type of red soil is found in regions all over the world, including around the Adriatic Sea, North Africa, La Mancha in Spain, Coonawarra in Australia, and the Judean Hills in Israel. Around the Mediterranean, this red soil has been known since ancient times to be very suitable for agriculture, especially wine production.

In pedology, or soil science, terra rosa is classified as a chromic luvisol. The various deposits of terra rosa soil around the world were created over millions of years, as limestone rich in iron oxides eroded. Scientists believe that frequent changes in climate during this geological period, especially heavy rains associated with these changes, helped break down the limestone, turning it into terra rosa soil.

Most regions with terra rosa soil have a Mediterranean climate, and are karst areas, a geological term referring to areas where the underlying bedrock is carbonate rock, usually limestone or dolomite, that is prone to erosion. Limestone bedrock is often characterized by being relatively porous, and the formation of caves and other subterranean hollows is a common feature in karst areas. Such areas sometimes lack significant sources of surface water, such as lakes and rivers, because rain water seeps through the bedrock rather than collects on top of it. Instead, groundwater often collects underground in large aquifers, which are layers of wet, subterranean rock and sediment.

Terra rosa provides good drainage, especially compared to many other clay soils, and the well-drained nature of the underlying bedrock contributes to the soil being able to retain moisture without becoming waterlogged. These characteristics, and the fertile chemical composition of the soil, help make it well-suited to agriculture. Vineyards are a common form of agriculture in some areas with terra rosa soil. One example of such an area is Coonawarra in Australia. The high quality of the wines from this region is said to be partly due to the characteristics of its red soil.

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Discussion Comments
By Perdido — On Jan 23, 2012

Terra rosa soil reminds me of the red soil we have in many spots here in Mississippi. It is a bright red-orange, but it is super hard. I have fallen on this type of dirt before, and the impact caused bruises and scrapes, because it feels a lot like falling on concrete.

One major difference between the red soil here and actual terra rosa is that our soil is not good for growing things. Patches of land with this type of soil have sparse grass, and though cedar trees can grow here with no problem, you won't see big flower or vegetable gardens.

Thankfully, only certain parts of the state have this type of soil. The rest of our land is rather fertile. I am sure that terra rosa is much more conducive to growing plants than my red soil.

By andee — On Jan 23, 2012

@sarahson -- I know what you're talking about! Where I live in South Carolina there's so much red clay, it can be just about impossible to get good drainage in your yard.

I have actually seen terra rosa when I was traveling in Spain, it's really beautiful. If only the red dirt around here was so useful...

By SarahSon — On Jan 23, 2012

In addition to Mediterranean climates, you can also find terra rosa soil in certain parts of Canada. They certainly have a different climate than someplace like Israel or Spain, yet you can find this red colored soil here as well.

Whenever I see soil with a red color in my yard, I always groan because I know there is probably a lot of clay in it. Clay soil doesn't drain very well, and I know I am going to have a hard time growing anything in it.

I find it interesting that the red terra rosa soil with all of the limestone, is a soil that is known for good drainage. I wish the red colored soil at my house would be have good drainage.

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