54 Drenched in summer sunshine
Unusual plants from multiple climates–mediterranean, desert and tropics– enhance the gardens around a classic estate villa, better known for its traditionally cultivated citrus orchards, reveals Jacky Hobbs
Unusual plants enhance the gardens around a classic estate villa better known for its citrus orchards, reveals Jacky Hobbs
Villa San Giuliano, Sicily
Bougainvilleas snake out of the stony earth, hugging walls and roofs
The gardens of the San Giuliano estate are seemingly well off the beaten track, yet, in reality, are only some three miles from the midway point of Sicily’s Siracusa to Catania highway. They erupt, a lush oasis in an otherwise arid, forlorn countryside inhabited by shaggy-topped pine trees, twisted ancient olives and sinewy sheep, with Mount etna etched on the distant skyline.
The 800-year-old family estate, belonging to Marchesi Paterno Castello di San Giuliano, presents a decidedly altered, cultivated landscape with intricate, separate regiments of commercial citrus groves and vines. The first fruits were planted in the early 1800s and, now, one million kilos, spanning 15 varieties of citrus fruit, are produced annually for export. Latterly, an increasing amount is used for estate-produced Sicilian marmalades and biscuits, using old family recipes, and the youthful vineyard produces a steady flow of full-bodied red wines.
At the heart of the estate is the 15th-century fortified farmhouse, its layout having a traditional inner courtyard, where once livestock was safeguarded, but which is now a sheltered garden. Bougainvilleas snake out of the stony earth, hugging walls and roofs; self-seeded cacti cling to roof tiles and pink-plastered crevices. The yard is dominated by a medusa-rooted banyan tree, Ficus magnoliodes, its outstretched limbs offering shady respite from the Sicilian sun. The tree was planted in 1959 by the Marchese on his family’s return from a six-year sojourn on their Brazilian estate and it signifies the rudimentary beginnings of the garden.
In the mid 1970s, the Marchese, together with his wife, Fiamma Ferragamo, daughter and enigmatic partner of the Ferragamo fashion house, determined to create a unique garden. They embarked on what was then considered a revolutionary scheme: overlaying indigenous species with striking architectural imports. They laid out a cobbled stone fountain terrace, crossed with water-filled rills, to provide a cooler, secluded dining/relaxing area directly off the house. here, they planted cycads ( Cycas circinalis and C. revoluta) bearing feathered wands, among olives and bougainvillea.
Later, plantings of Bismarck palm, Bismarckia nobilis (an unusual, verdigris-coloured palm native to Madagascar), and exotic-flowered frangipani, Plumeria rubra var. acutifolia, were added by the talented english head gardener Rachel Lamb, who has been developing the gardens and substantially broadening the collection of unusual exotics since her arrival in 2002.
An arresting cactus garden boasts a barrage of stout and slightly menacing Mexican fire barrels, Ferocactus stainesii, together with pillars of the Argentine saguaro, Trichocereus terscheckii, and bouffant sotol, Dasylirion serratifolium, a species whose prickly dome of multitudinous wands has engagingly been compared to a fibre-optic lamp.
A bold ruby-red bougainvillea offers a bolt of colour, fastened to the villa façade, and the driveway is partially marshalled by vibrant stands of stripestockinged bamboo, Bambusa vulgaris, whose golden limbs appear to have soaked up the Sicilian sun.
The exotic fades to classic Sicilian again, with the retention of ancient olives and a formidable Baroque fountain created by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini in 1735– 37, which had previously stood—in increasing disrepair —in the nearby town, but is now safeguarded within the garden.
In the late 1990s, the Marchese employed garden designer Olivia di Collobiano to devise a small Arabic garden, beyond the swimming pool. The Giardinetto, as it is known, was quartered by dry-stone walls and Moorish water rills, the stone pathways embedded with the family’s coat of arms, together with designs lifted from Persian carpets.
In recent years, the formerly sketchy garden has been enhanced under Miss Lamb’s guiding hand, with additions of fruit, flower and fragrance. She recalls: ‘This area had, for some time, been left to its own devices, strewn with self-seeded vegetables, some old fruit trees, stranded persimmons and a couple of irregular, fish-tailed palms.’ With her small team of gardeners, Miss Lamb took it back to bare bones, rotavating, weeding and preparing the soil before introducing fresh plants.
She played on the Arabic nature of the waterways and drew on her earlier experiences of gardening in Beirut. In one quarter, she created rippling pools, filled with waterlilies and lotus flowers. Deep well water is drawn to a huge storage tank and drawn into the rills of the Giardinetto, babbling, cooling and irrigating the floriferous oasis. A second quarter assumes more tropical planting with ornamental bananas ( Musa velutina),
Golden limbs of bamboo appear to have soaked up the Sicilian sun
red-veined wild banana ( Ensete ventricosum), the white-flowered ginger lily Hedychium coronarium, elephant ears ( Alocasia macrorrhizum) and edible taro ( Colocasia esculenta).
Erupting from a rocky lava bed are stout barrel cacti, Echinocactus grusonii and Ferocactus stainesii, the latter’s red-tinged spines complementing the California poppies interspersed throughout them, which open in the morning in full sun and snap closed tight when the light disappears.
Carefully selected roses include R. chinensis Mutabilis and R. chinensis sanguinea, together with garden cultivars such as creamto-pink Pierre de Ronsard, rosy Deborah and pure-white Iceberg, which perform well despite the heat, flowering in March and April and again at summer’s end. They mingle with grapefruit trees underset with decorative glazed pots spilling with vibrant Pelargonium Decora Rose.
Citrus trees, as mentioned, are grown commercially, but they are also an important part of the garden, where the range includes kumquats, mandarancio (an orange/mandarin hybrid), pomelo, thick-skinned citrons and, fruiting year-round, Feminello and Quattro Stagione lemons. ‘We have really flavoursome Mexican and Brazilian limes in the garden, which are fantastic in cocktails,’ smiles Miss Lamb.
Ingeniously, she has created fragrant, violet-clad walkways beneath the trees with Viola odorata Reines des Blanches: ‘It’s a really pretty, white double, which comes up in early February, bringing the first scent to the garden.’
Perfume is also the theme of the remaining quadrant of the Giardinetto, in which Miss Lamb has deftly blended mounds of scented herbs: bouffant blue lavender, rosemary, mint, tarragon and clary sage, together with more unusual aromatic plantings, including highly scented China-box Murraya paniculata, Japanese Pittosporum tobira and Jasminum polyanthum. Even so, the purple-flowered treeheliotrope Heliotropium arborescens wins hands down for beauty and its distinctive, vanilla perfume.
Miss Lamb recalls that her inaugural meeting with the Marchese coincided with an unusually bad storm: ‘Barely had we left the garden when the sky turned black and a ferocious hailstorm decimated the gardens I’d just seen for the first time. The Marchese insisted my decision was made and I had now no choice but to help him.’
Towering stone pines had been ripped out, cypresses lay strewn like fallen skittles and a kapok tree had crashed through the cactus garden. Essential clearing followed and it made way for new, exotic plantings, with introductions of Xanthorrhoea australis Black Boy and Majestic Palm, Ravanea rivularis, copious agaves, yuccas elephantipes and linearis and dragon trees ( Dracaena draco).
Is there a ‘best time’ to be in this remarkable garden? Miss Lamb recommends spring, from the end of April, ‘when the garden loses its winter clothes’, through to June. July and August are terribly hot and the Marchese and his family enjoy having the garden to themselves before visitors return in more hospitable September and October. Visit www.marchesidisangiuliano.it. Pre-booked groups can visit by prior appointment. Jacky Hobbs travelled with Susan Worner Tours (www. susanwornertours.com)
A bust of Catherine de Medici looks over the seating area in the Arabic garden
The villa façade, with the integral chapel to its left, is surprisingly planted with exotic palms. Towering Pinus pinea, Italian stone pine trees, dwarf the significant Mediterranean fan palms, Chamaerops humilis
Above: The Giardinetto is infused with a concoction of fruits, flowers and exotic palms. Preceding pages: Moorish-tiled pathways in the Arabic garden, the edges softened by sprawling nasturtiums. Stands of king palm ( Archontophoenix alexandrae) line the walkway and citrus trees stud the lawned areas
x sanderae Fragrant Cloud plus lime-green and lush agapanthus foliage create a softer feel in the vicinity of Yucca linearis in the exotic area of the Arabic garden