THE BOTANICAL GARDEN OF ISOLA MADRE
Although it is said that the nearby Isola Bella exceeds it in terms of beauty and magnificence, in reality Isola Madre, which is larger in extension, is a genuine treasure island, a bountiful chest of botanical “jewels” coming from all over the world.
While in antiquity it was no more than a rock, by as early as the 9th century it was transformed into a place abounding in olive trees, and later, in 1500, also welcoming vines and orchards with walnut, fig, chestnut, cherry and pomegranate trees, which were well suited to the particularly mild climate of Lago Maggiore.
In the first decades of the 19th century, following the landscaping orientation of the time, firs, cypresses and evergreens began to appear, giving rise to what was to all intents and purposes a botanical garden.
The full-blown transformation took place thanks to Vitaliano IX, an enthusiastic naturalist, who had seeds, botanical rarities and plants in vases sent there from all over the world.
Roses, peonies, azaleas and verbenas, sage and laurel were planted. In the Noria Meadow: apricot, cherry, apple, pear, fig and plum trees. Ashes, willows and walnut trees near to the Palazzo.
In the large meadow facing towards Suna there is an English-style garden with hibiscus, calycanthus, mulberry and pomegranate trees, as well as oaks and rhododendrons, maples and cypresses.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Vitaliano came into contact with passionate researchers, thus giving rise to a period of exchanges of seeds and plants with other important gardens.
And through correspondence with Joseph Pentland, the Scottish botanist, traveller and diplomat, numerous exotic species reached the island that the diplomat considered suited to growth on the banks of Lago Maggiore.
Among these, Wellingtonia, the Giant Redwood, from Oregon, and seeds of the tallow tree that arrived from Northern China through one of his intermediaries. In 1862 Pentland sent conifer seeds from Kashmir and wrote to the count as follows:
Have them sown immediately: there is a species of cypress from Kashmir that will be favourable for the woods of Lago Maggiore.
The whirlwind that hit the north of Isola Madre in June 2006 also left its mark on this giant 25-metre-high tree with its trunk almost eight metres in diameter (Cupressus cashmeriana). Saving it was an operation requiring high-level engineering and botanical skills. Even though it will never return to the form that made it «the most beautiful tree in the world», the great cypress of Isola Madre remains to bear witness to the dedication of the Borromeo Family to the conservation of the island’s natural heritage.
The most diverse species of palms succeed in coexisting with Californian redwoods and Mexican pines on the Islands, while collections of wisterias and rare pittospora succeed in serving as a counterattraction to shady forests of rhododendrons, camellias and magnolias.
Among the botanical rarities present on Isola Madre, the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) also merits a visit; it has characteristic roots with protuberances emerging from the ground, which are necessary for the oxygenation of the plant.
A little further along, in the Gynerium Meadow, the pampas grass (Gynerium argenteum) displays its silvery inflorescences, while in the Square of the Parrots, in the shade of the camphor tree, white peacocks, parrots and pheasants roam undisturbed.
Numerous specimens grow along the Avenue of the Palms, standing out among which is Jubaea spectabilis, one of the largest in Europe, which arrived from Chile in 1858.
Though finding themselves in a cool latitude, some palms even succeed in bearing fruit: the acclimatisation of exotic plants, and particularly palms, has always been one of the main goals of this botanical garden.
Among all these, particular attention is merited for the Butia capitata, which in autumn produces large clusters of juicy orange-coloured fruit.
Isola Madre is known for its exceptional collections of flowers, starting with magnolias, acquisitions of which have been documented since the late 18th century.
Alongside large specimens of grandiflora and soulangeana, there are particularly rare varieties such as the “Yellow Bird”, with flowers in the various tones of yellow, up to twelve centimetres wide.
The Plain of Camellias, which arrived on the island in the early 19th century at the wishes of Vitaliano IX, hosts more than one hundred and fifty varieties, many of which ancient; the planting of numerous cultivars is accompanied by the selection of new hybrids, among which the very famous hybrids of Camellia japonica “Glory of the Borromeo Islands” and “Gloria of the Verbano”.
Between April and May the wisterias blossom, one of the first collections of these to be created in Italy.
In the mildest zone of the island, the Terrace of the Proteas has been opened to the public. It was inaugurated in 2013 and is devoted to southern flora, thus bringing a representation of vegetation coming from South Africa to Italy.
The extraordinary attention and care devoted by the Borromeo family to their gardens has meant that the Royal Horticultural Society of London, one of the most famous organisations in the world devoted to horticulture, has included the Islands’ gardens, the first in Italy, in its prestigious visitors’ circuit.
This unique and spectacular setting, placed at the disposal of the public thanks to work, experience and continuous commitment, creates an age-old, majestic dream of beauty.
© Photo: Stefano Pezzano, Gisella Motta, Alessandro Famiani