There are at least thirty botanical gardens in Italy and every one

of them is exquisite. Italy was a historical first in respect to botanical

gardens. The Vatican garden in Rome was founded during

the 13th century and the Salerno garden

in the 14th century. Neither exists today, but many

other botanical gardens can be found scattered across the country.

azalea

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.

The rolling hills and lush valleys surrounding the gardens give visitors

the opportunity to view the gardens from a hillside perch. Vine-covered

pergolas offer a shady place to enjoy the company of friends over a

delicious lunch.

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

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

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