Orto Botanico di Palermo

The botanical gardens in Sicily’s first city, Palermo, are among the oldest and most important in Europe. Conceived in the late 1700’s no expense was spared on their construction. As today, early visitors were greeted by a triumphal neo-classical Gymnasium (intended for exercising the mind rather than the body), flanked by symmetrical buildings housing tropical plants (the Calidarium), and temperate plants (the Tepidarium).

The dome of the Gymnasium reads 'Miscuit utile dulci', which translates as 'Mixed with sweet profit'
The motto inside the dome of the Gymnasium reads ‘Miscuit utile dulci‘, which translates as ‘Mixed with sweet profit

The architect was the Frenchman Léon Dufourny, who also laid out a typical Linnean system of beds for the display and study of plants in their respective families. Botanical gardens from all over Northern Europe sent plants to Palermo that would otherwise have perished in colder climes. And how they flourished. The Orto Botanico di Palermo is now home to over 12,000 species, many of which have reached gigantic proportions, notably the drago tree (Dracaena draco), which occupies a knoll near a pond known as ‘the lagoon’, a towering Cook pine (Araucaria columnaris), and a massive specimen of the Moreton Bay fig (Ficus macrophylla) which arrived in Palermo from Norfolk Island in 1845.

An historic view of the garden entrance from modern day Via Lincoln
Dufourny’s Gymnasium, still well preserved, houses a small museum and library

Time and circumstance have not been entirely kind to the Orto Botanico. In the 1960s the grounds narrowly avoided being bisected by a new highway. Recently, in common with other botanical institutions around the world, the Orto Botanico has experienced funding cuts, the impact of which is sadly apparent. Parts of the garden have a distinct air of abandonment, as if someone had padlocked the gates 12 months ago and let nature take its course. Large tracts (the bright yellow ones in the plan below) are marked as ‘experimental areas’, which appears to be a gentle way of excusing a lot of weeds, or at the very least weedy looking plants.

Shaggy palms add to the Jurrasic feel of the garden
Shaggy palms add to the Jurrasic feel of the garden

Little remains of the extensive Linnean system (pale yellow), except the stonework belonging to the eight formal water basins. (The ‘aquarium’, a large round pool divided into 24 sections housing different aquatic flora, is completely intact and brimming with plants.) The Linnean area has been eclipsed by trees and palms which, whilst magnificent, are not what was originally intended. Cordoned-off and crumbling, it’s sad to see the garden’s original gates leading from the park of Villa Giulia in a parlous state of repair.

Orto Botanico di Palermo, September 2015In trying to think up a name for this post I was tempted to refer to the gardens as the ‘Orto Jurrasico’: the possibility of a dinosaur wandering through the undergrowth never felt beyond the realms of possibility. In the ever-wise words of Him Indoors “it all needed a good chop”.

However, to suggest that the Orto Botanico is not interesting or attractive would be to do it an injustice. Most of the buildings are in good order and the central axes of the Viale Vincenzo Tineo and Viale delle Palme are neatly maintained, offering beautiful vistas through the garden. Lovers of palms, cycads, dracaenas and succulents will find it packed to the gunnels with impressive specimens that would not survive outdoors elsewhere in Europe. And, let’s face it, Palermo doesn’t have the climate for herbaceous borders and rockeries, so one has to judge it based on different criteria to an English botanical garden.

Spot the Him Indoors!
I nearly lost Him Indoors in the undergrowth!

I was especially delighted to reacquaint myself with some of the plants we last saw in Madagascar – Alluaudia procera and A. humbertii. They evolved their octopus-like, spiny ‘trunks’ thousands of years ago to stave off herbivores, but the lemurs caught up and will happily nibble at the juicy leaves. In Palermo Alluaudias are unlikely to be troubled by anything more than a stumbling human, and I know which would come off worse.

The last time I brushed up against Alluaudia humbertii I was in Southern Madagascar

The Giardino a Succulente is a treasure trove of cacti and other fleshy plants. Here they can achieve their full potential, many reaching full maturity. Elsewhere there is a cactus house, which is kept in good order with most plants labelled. However it doesn’t escape the trap of looking slightly tired and dusty as cactus houses often do. The shady pathways of the garden are lined-out with thousands of potted specimens which, judging from old photographic plates, is a tradition that dates back to the 1800s.

Succulents displayed in the shade of Frangipani trees
Succulents displayed in the shade of Frangipani trees

My fancy was tickled by the wonderful Echinocactus grusonii pictured below, ridged and armoured with sharp prickles, yet covered over at the top by creamy fluff. Those dark tufts will eventually bring forth yellow flowers.

Echinocactus grusonii is also known as Mother-in-Law's cushion
Echinocactus grusonii is also known as Mother-in-Law’s cushion – ouch!

We all know what an arboretum is, but I had never heard of a cycadetum. I know very little about the cycad family, apart from that they have been around since the Jurassic period (i.e. 145 million years). I can’t say that I am any the wiser following my visit to the Orto Botanico, but I could see the collection was impressive. It began with a specimen of Cycas revoluta (lately of shopping centres and public planting schemes all over the tropics) donated by Queen Maria Carolina in 1793. It was the first cycad to find a permanent home in Europe. As the garden developed it acquired Ceratozamia mexicana and Dioon edule from Mexico and Cycas circinalis from the Indian sub-continent. In 1997 the Orto Botanico added extensively to its collection with Dioon spinulosum (below), Encephalartos altensteinii, Encephalartos longifolius, Encephalartos villosus, Encephalartos ferrox (below), Macrozamia moorei and Zamia furfuracea.

Graceful yet savage: the fern-like leaves of Dioon spinulosum (giant dioon or gum palm)
Another spiny cycad, Encephalartos ferrox

One of the Orto Botanico’s finest features is the elegant Serra Maria Carolina, which was presented to the garden by Queen Maria Carolina of Austria. It’s also known as the Giardino d’Inverno, or Winter Garden. The original structure was fashioned from wood and glass, but over the course of the second half of the 19th century, it was rebuilt using cast-iron. The greenhouse was pleasantly cool inside even with an outside temperature of 37 degrees centigrade.

A view from inside the Serra Maria Carolina towards the Orto's original entrance from Villa Giulia
A view from inside the Serra Maria Carolina towards the Orto’s original entrance from Villa Giulia

Despite the precarious condition of parts of the garden, a visit is a real treat on a hot sunny day. The exotic canopy of foliage provides delicious shade and a home for hundreds of rose-ringed parakeets, as at home in Palermo as they are in Kent. These are tough, adaptable birds, and I have a feeling the Orto Botanico shares the same traits. The garden has weathered the last 230 years and will surely survive the centuries that follow as one of Europe’s leading botanical institutions.

The Orto Botanico di Palermo, Via Lincoln 2, is both a botanical garden and a research and educational institution of the Department of Botany at the University of Palermo. It is open daily, but check the website before visiting.

Linneaus stands proud even if his part of the Orto Botanico has gone to seed
Linneaus stands proud even if his part of the Orto Botanico has gone to seed