Great and ancient cities have two important things or institutions in common: fine symphony orchestras and beautiful botanical gardens. Both symphonies and gardens are rooted in history, culture, and the rhythmic life of the cities from which they evolved.
The Orto Botanico di Palermo was begun in 1779 as part of the University of Palermo. It was intended that the plant collection would include exotic, useful, and medicinal plants. Today the Orto di Palermo is immediately adjacent to the botany and medical schools of the University of Palermo.
All botanical gardens have a special, individual feeling, and that of the Orto is created by its artifacts, plantings, and age. There is an ancient Arabic well that serves as the water-house for the entire garden. And, there are the worn ruins of a 16th century church ensconced by ferns, mosses, and time. The “Aquarium” is a circular 24 section pool of water lilies and other aquatic plants that is the watery home of sunning, yellow-eared water turtles, many of which have been “dumped” there by their former owners.
The glass plant house contains tropicals, cacti, and succulents of many genera, and some are so rare that smiling guards are seated in the plant house to discourage taking plants home. It is all very Italian; the guards are pleasant, young university students who answer questions and chat with the visitants. One of these glass houses was built by Queen Maria Carolina of Austria.
Goethe made his Italian journey and visited the Orto di Palermo. He said, that “We are all pilgrims who seek Italy”. He strolled the paths among the “plant islands” and mused about his well known Urpflanze or primal plant which he concluded must be the universal, ancient plant form that all plants derive from in stem, leaf, and blossom. I think of Goethe and his Urpflanze every time I walk the very same paths. Is there such a plant form—I think so.
The Orto has been refurbished in the last few years. Its main building at the entrance, on Via Lincoln, is now a museum with well curated exhibitions of plants and insects. The cases of scarab beetles are quite impressive.
Events of synchronicity always occur for us in botanical gardens. As we sat under the trees, the director of the garden casually came out of his office, introduced himself to me and my wife, and kindly invited us for coffee over at the newly opened Orto café. We engaged in bot-talk about the plantings, and parted with a warm arrivederci planning to meet again someday—a fine example of the Orto’s wonderfully personal ambiance. Gardens are a kind of social enclosure, a “hortus conclusus”, that bring similar people together.
The giant Ficus at the garden’s entrance is the signature image of the Orto di Palermo. It is ancient, and its huge, serpentine roots and festooned branches of hanging roots create a very green, tropical environment. I believe that this Ficus will grow at the Orto “in perpetua”. I always greet it and say “ciao” when I am at the Orto.
I love walking across the Tiber bridges to Trastevere where there is another great botanical garden: The Orto Botanico dell’Università di Roma, “La Sapienza”, was created from Renaissance papal gardens. It is a aged, refined place, occupying the gentle hill that leads up to the Janiculum, atop of which is a magnificent statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi on horseback.
The Orto Botanico di Roma is entered from the Palazzo Orsini that was the royal residence area of Queen Christina of Sweden (1659-1687). She loved Italy and Trastevere. Walking through Trastevere is a cultural delight in itself—old shops and verdant gardens. There is a warm leisure set apart from the “rock and roll” of downtown Rome.
The Orto Botanico di Roma contains ferneries, bamboos of many varieties, over 300 medicinal plants, (the entire collection of plants is over 3000) and a fine garden of “old” roses on the slopes that lead up to fish ponds and an authentic Japanese garden where one can sit restfully and view the City of Rome with its Dome of St. Peter!
The Orto trees surround large carefully tended lawns with benches to sit upon in the sweet Roman morning sun. As we sat, we heard the screeches of parrots, their colorful heads peaking out from the branches. Then, a few of them swept down onto the lawn to do battle royal with the cornacchie; sleek, black, elegant, Italian crows with silver-grey wing epaulets. Air-Marshals. The battle was mediaeval in its gesturings and vocal assaults.
The grounds-keeper informed us, with equally dramatic gesticulations, that the parrots are a resident colony of escapees from pet owners in Rome. Both the cornacchie and the parrots vie for claim of the lawns in territorial joust. Neither side draws blood. All is rather symbolic than serious. This sort of thing makes a botanical garden of a great city worthy of its name.
Many botanic gardens I have visited have wonderful resident animal populations: such as parrots, alligators, iguanas, raccoons, lizards, snakes, tropical fish, and herons, all of which I have seen at Fairchild Tropical Garden in South Miami. Creatures are an integral part of the plant population.
All of this is evidence that a botanical garden must be in existence for a very long time for various living creatures, mankind among them, to feel comfortable, at home. I do not think that the world can exist without gardens.