Above Azalea at the Vatican Garden
Originally, the function of botanical gardens was to display plants for medical use. Examples are the University botanical gardens in Florence, Padua and Pisa, which were created in the 16th century. Most of Italy's botanical gardens are much younger, being created in the 18th and 19th centuries.
If you visit several Italian gardens, you will soon realize that their pre-Renaissance features are still alive today. In most, there is a distinct geometric pattern. The basic garden is designed in squares, and then separated by pebble-covered paths. Hospitality plays an important role. In spring, visitors are welcomed with vin santo (sweet wine,) pecorino cheese, fava beans and a tour of the garden.
Find a second story balcony from which to view a maze, where at one time monks ambled among a tangle of trimmed boxwood. This part of the garden is a place to enjoy a few minutes of solitude to meditate and pray.
Church garden in Italy
Many classic Italian gardens include an herb garden, once called a "garden of simples." Here you will find herbs growing that have healing properties, including summer savory, garlic, tansy and borage. These herbs are used in hundreds of Italian recipes every day and are thought to promote health and a sense of well-being.
Seldom will you see annual bedding plants in Italian gardens. The focus tends to be on Mediterranean plants, which can be mounded to reduce the need for water. The color of the leaves of these plants range from green-gray to silver, which lessens the need for chlorophyll. Mediterranean plants are dormant in summer when water is scarce, which allows them to fit perfectly into the gardens.
Italian gardens are planted for food and fragrance. A stroll along the winding pebbled paths is an incredible experience. The buzz of bees, the trickle of water, the fragrance of the blossoms and the bright splashes of color is a feast for the senses. Seek out a resting place under the grape-covered arbors to enjoy the view of olive trees and vineyards.
Water is considered precious and it plays and important role in the design of Italian gardens. It is almost always a focal point in the form of reflecting pools and fountains. Water is nature's music and brings motion and birds to the garden.
Statues have a prominent place even in the most formal gardens. Not all are sculpted of rock. Cypress, laurel, boxwood and myrtle are sculpted into the forms of animals and are placed strategically as borders or along paths.
Orchards are an integral part of Italian gardens. Apricots, almonds, figs, olive and other fruit bearing trees are often enclosed within ancient, crumbling walls. The soil on Italy's rocky slopes has good drainage and is a perfect place for olive trees to thrive, as they have for centuries.
In Sorrento, the air is alive with the fragrance of citrus. Lemon trees grow everywhere and are eaten by the locals, skin and all. Lemons are used in sachets, liqueur, and perfumes and to flavor food. Kitchenware is adorned with the bright yellow fruit and it is often the subject of still-life paintings.
The gardens of Italy are enchanting, beautiful and exquisite forms of art. They are pools of tranquility where you can sneak away for a moment of solitude - balm for the soul.
by Mary M. Alward