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

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­tographs by Clive Ni­chols

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

Nico­tiana

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

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