Gardens of Western Sicily

Monday 8 – Monday 15 May 2023

What an action-packed week this was.  It’s difficult to believe that so many layers of history exist in the relatively small area of northern Sicily that stretches from Palermo to Trapani. We scampered around 18th and 19th century villa gardens full of non-native species planted to impress. We paused for breath in peaceful Benedictine cloisters decorated in a fusion of Norman and Arab style. But perhaps it wasn’t until we reached the impressive remains of Phoenician and Greek cities that we really grasped the extent to which Sicily has been moulded by the cultures of its invaders.

Monday 8 May

Sicily’s strategic importance rested on its position, its climate, and the fertility of its land. Inevitably, it became an important stopping off point for the trade in sub-tropical and tropical plants. Many of these plants found their way to to the villa gardens of the Sicilian nobility. It was primarily the 18th and 19th century villa gardens of Sicily’s capital, Palermo, that we visited during the first four days of the trip.

Villa Tasca was built in the 16th century on an old road leading from Palermo to Monreale. It is one of the city’s best-preserved historic gardens.  Initially built in Renaissance style, it was updated in the 19th century when follies and a grotto were added.  In its heyday, it was visited by the rich and famous. Richard Wagner is said to have finished the third act of Parsifal while a guest here.

It was in the garden at Villa Tasca that we had our first experience of Sicily’s Ficus macrophylla f. columnaris (Moreton Bay Fig). The tree was introduced to the island in the early 1840s and was planted in many of the gardens we visited.  Araucaria columnaris (New Caledonia pine) is almost as ubiquitous. Particularly memorable in this garden was the enormous Pittosporum tobira.

After a conversation with the current owner and aperitives on the villa’s terrace, we headed for our first hotel, the Domina Zagarella –   a sprawling hotel that is colour-themed by floor.  Most of us lost our way in its long corridors at some point during our stay.

Tuesday 9 May

Originally a small hill town southwest of Palermo, Monreale is now a busy suburb. The fertile valley below (the Conca D’Oro), was once full of carabs, sugar cane, citrus, pistachios, and almonds, while the land closer to the mountain was reserved as a royal hunting ground.

We visited The Duomo, admiring the Norman-Arab style of architecture and mosaics. How fortunate that the Normans embraced rather than destroyed the existing Arab architecture, culture, and agriculture when they invaded in the 12th century. The fusion of styles was particularly beautiful in the Benedictine Cloisters.

The Victorian/Edwardian Villa Malfitano was our first introduction to the Whitaker and Ingham families. Of British origin, they built their wealth through Marsala wine and then married into Italy’s established families. As our guide explained, the family ‘didn’t plant small’. There was of course, an enormous Moreton Bay Fig in the garden. An impressive Rosa ‘Banksia’ had just finished flowering.

Palermo Botanic Garden is one of the largest Botanic Gardens in Italy. The Botanic Garden opened in 1795 around a set of neo-classical buildings designed by French architect, Leon Dufourney.  Originally developed to grow medicinal plants, it expanded during the Victorian era to about 25 acres. We were guided by Cassandra Carroll Funsten, a landscape architect, and partner of the curator.

The garden’s Arucaria columnaris is the tallest of the species in Palermo. Its Moreton Bay Fig is the largest we saw anywhere. Of course, in this garden it is cared for by experts.  Elsewhere, these aging trees are becoming increasingly fragile and hazardous.

The Botanic Garden also has an important and rare cycad collection. Many of the plants in the collection were confiscated from would-be traffickers.  There were far too many other fascinating plants to mention in a short report, but particularly striking was the avenue of Ceibo specioso.

Back at the colourful hotel, MPG members Kelvin Devries and Stephanie Jocius gave an excellent pre-dinner talk, “Horticulture in British Columbia”.  Kelvin works at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden, the oldest botanic garden in Canada, while Stephanie works for the City of Vancouver’s public parks. The contrast in their working environments added an additional layer of interest. While Kelvin’s biggest challenges are mostly climate related, Stephanie also deals with vandalism and litter.

Wednesday 10 May

We spent this drizzly day looking at villas in nearby Bagheria, an area in which past opulence and the poverty of the last century collide. The area was once famed for its beauty and as a retreat from the summer heat. As a result, it became a popular stopping off point on The Grand Tour. Unfortunately, unregulated development has destroyed any obvious appeal.

At one time, Villa Cattolica would have been surrounded by countryside and enjoyed views of the nearby mountains.  Today, it is hemmed in by modern buildings and overlooks an abandoned concrete factory. It also houses a museum dedicated to self-taught artist and local hero, Renato Guttuso.  Of particular interest to many of us was a temporary exhibition of the work of Mimmo Pintacuda, a photographer and film maker who captured the lives of ordinary people living in Bagheria in the first half of the 20th century.

MPG members can usually find a plant worth discussing. In this rather sparsely planted garden, it was Parkinsonia aculeata (Jerusalem Thorn).

Villa San Marco was a joy. We were hosted by the present owner whose family has lived in the house since the 16th century.  It was built in fortress style with a tower and a drawbridge to protect the family from pirates keen to steal their sugar cane.  By the 17th century the pirates had disappeared, the house was redesigned and, when garden visiting became popular, the gates were left open to enable neighbours to visit. We entered in a similarly sociable way, walking through the enormous gates and up a path between well-established trees and shrubs towards the house.

As was the case in many villa gardens, we saw a combination of utility and beauty in the planting here – a legacy of early Muslim influence. Oranges, tangerines, olives, and capers were just some of the home-grown edibles that we enjoyed for lunch. A particular treat was the hidden Cacti Garden – the creation of the family’s gardener. It was even more delightful because it was unexpected.

Villa Palagonia dates from 1715.  It was designed by Tommaso Maria Napoli for Ferdinand, Prince of Palagonia and is famed for its strange external wall sculptures. Once again, the proximity of the modern buildings around the Villa was difficult to ignore.

Villa San Cataldo was also built in the early 18th century.  The garden is now a slightly overgrown public park full of citrus trees and crumbling architecture. However, having experienced the claustrophobia of Villas Cattolica and Palagonia, the sense of space and gentle abandonment here was welcomed by many of us.

Thursday 11 May

Our first and only entirely sunny day. After three days of crawling through traffic jams it was wonderful to walk through the pedestrianised parts of Palermo and to get a better sense of the city. It is beautiful and chaotic in equal measure – and yet, thanks to the street trees, surprisingly green.

The Palazzo dei Normanni, originally the seat of the Kings of Sicily, has housed the Sicilian Regional Assembly since 1946. As the Assembly was sitting on the day we visited, we were restricted to the Palatine Chapel – another striking example of the fusion of styles typical of Sicilian 12th century architecture.

Our next stop was at the Garden of The Palazzo dei Normann where we met Guiseppe Barbera, the Curator of Palermo’s Botanic Garden who is also responsible for this small garden’s ongoing restoration.

Guiseppe told us that before the restoration, the plants were in a poor state and that the garden was without personality. He decided to introduce rare, non-native species. He likes the ‘impurity’ of this approach as it reflects the nature of Sicily – a mix of many influences. His enthusiasm for plants and the restoration was infectious.  The slightly chaotic mix of noisy school parties and bursts of opera arias piped around the garden somehow added to its joy.

Dicandra repensa as ground cover was interesting. Also, an entire bed of Plumeria rubra – the flower of Sicily – obviously without leaves or flowers in early May, but just imagine the smell in early summer.  Agave attenuate looked very happy and the rare Encephalartos whitelockii is worth a mention.

During our walk across the city, we stopped briefly at San Giovanni degli Eremeti church. Originally a 6th century church, it became a mosque. It then returned to its original status during the Norman period, but kept its domes which are clearly visible from the pretty cloister.

The afternoon visit to the Palazzina Cinese was a delight.  Built inside the park of La Favorita, it was restored as recently as 2013.  It’s described by the Architectural Digest as “a tea caddy writ large”’ and that just about sums it up. Everything about its interior was slightly quirky and surprising.

The French Garden behind the house is laid out as a parterre de broderie. There was a lot of discussion in the group about the hedging. Our conclusions were probably wrong as Guiseppe Barbera’s notes on the garden suggest that it was Duranta erecta.

Friday 12 May

We left Palermo and our colourful hotel and headed for the remains of the ancient city of Segesta, 30 km east of Trapani. As we drove west and left the ugly modern buildings of the Palermo suburbs, small fields of olives stretched across the hills. The one advantage of the damp weather was that everything looked fresh and green.

All that remains of the 12 BC city of Segesta is an impressively sited theatre and a Doric temple. To our delight, the sides of the path on the way up to the theatre were full of wild fennel and flowers. The views down to the coast were spectacular. Excavations behind the theatre have found foundations of a mosque and a Norman Castle – yet further evidence of the island’s rich heritage.

After being distracted by a friendly sheepdog and her puppy, we drove up to Erice, a walled mountain town, 750 m above sea level.  We walked up to Giardini del Balio – an English-style public garden with good views. It will soon be closed for EU funded renovation. It would be interesting to see how the project progresses.

Saturday 13 May

We woke in Mazara del Vallo to weather warnings of high winds but had little sense of what this might mean. We spent the morning at Racalia (Villa Ingham), the delightful property of MPG members, Alison Richards and Robert Hazell, relatives of the Ingham branch of the Whitaker family. Once again, it was wonderful to hear about a garden from people who know and love it. The house has been in Alison’s family since 1840.  While there is no documentary evidence of garden planning, Alison knows that her great grandmother developed the woodland here in the mid 1880s.   She started to work on the garden herself in 1997 and has continued to do so with the help of volunteers and some professionals, the most recent being from Oxford Botanic Garden.

As Alison pointed out, the garden is closer to Tunis than Rome. They don’t experience frosts, but plants do suffer from wind burn, particularly during a sirocco – something we were soon to understand. We enjoyed the wonderful palette of healthy Mediterranean plants throughout the garden but one in particular created a lot of interest. It was a plectranthus, given to Alison as a cutting by a friend in South Africa.

After the most perfect lunch, we drove to the coast to catch a ferry to the ancient Phoenician settlement of Mozia, on the island of San Pantaleo. Mozia was one of the three Phoenician bases in Sicily and was settled during the 8th century BC. It wasn’t excavated until Joseph Whitaker bought it in the 19th century and started to dig it up.

By the time we arrived at Mozia the sirocco had really picked up. Some of us managed to walk around the island, at times bent double against the wind.  Others found it far too debilitating.  Whether we walked or not, we ended the day with a clear understanding of the threat these strong, hot winds pose to Sicilian gardens.

Almost equally memorable was the miracle of the lost mobile phone. It was remarkable, particularly given the weather, that a member’s phone was found and handed in at the Mozia museum just as the ferry man sounded his horn to tell us we had to leave the island.

Sunday 14 May

Our last day in Sicily. After a drizzly start, the sun shone. Selinunte lies on the coast and is the site of the Greek city of Selinus.  The city reached its peak in 5 BC and was subsequently destroyed by earthquakes. Most of its temples still lie where they fell.  Unlike many UK ancient monuments, the land around them is not manicured. The combination of a Sicilian ‘no mow May,’ spectacular remains, and a sunny morning was memorable.

We moved on from the delights of wildflowers to the most civilised wine tasting imaginable at the organic vineyard, Gorghi Tondi.  A relaxing and delicious end to a very full week.

Special thanks to Sicilian horticulturalist, Sergio Cumitini and to MPG’s Maddy Hughes for shepherding our large group through such a busy itinerary. Without doubt, the Palermo traffic and unhelpful weather must have added to the challenge. They dealt with it and with us with good humour and patience.

Text and images –  Liz Ware