Leaving Room for a Little Whimsy

Wandering around other people’s gardens, in Italy as well as back home in Toronto, I’ve come across a fair bit of cheesy, tasteless and tacky things.  There’s no place like a garden to appreciate how slippery the slope from the delightful, cheerful and amusing can be, but lately I’ve come to the view that it is possible for a garden to be a serious, beautiful and intelligent creation – and still contain a touch of whimsy – something that makes us smile, that tells us that although the creator of this garden takes garden-making very seriously, he or she hasn’t fallen into the trap of taking him or herself too seriously.

This whimsical frog  - next to a gorgeous - and horticulturally-speaking - very serious Incarvillea (Hardy Gloxinia) was in one of the gardens on the 2012 Leaside Garden Club tour in Toronto.

This self-satisfied frog, the quintessence of whimsy, next to a gorgeous, and horticulturally-speaking, very serious Incarvillea (Hardy Gloxinia) was in one of the gardens on the 2012 Leaside Garden Club tour in Toronto.

This disgruntled cherub, in one of the gardens of the Toronto Botanical Garden's annual fundraiser 'Through the Garden Gate', is one of my favourites.

A disgruntled cherub in a Toronto garden.

And during those long winter months, these light-hearted touches can acts as reminders of the beauty – and the fun – that awaits us next spring in our gardens.  In my entrance hall I have a photo of this garden angel.  For some reason, as I pass by her on my way in and out, she always makes me smile.  Maybe it’s that sense of  “Hmmph! So here I am – now what?”


Whatever we think of these creatures, that pink is definitely a perfect match for the oleander hedge below.

Of course it is a fine line and I still don’t know what to make of these bright pink statues – are they even ‘statues’? – in the Orto Botanico (Botanical Garden) in Portofino on the Ligurian Coast of Italy.


There were two gardens I wanted to visit on Ischia.  One of them was just a couple of bus stops south of my hotel.  In fact, had I known how close it was, I wouldn’t have bothered with the bus.  I Giardini Ravino is an internationally renowned botanical garden specializing in succulents and cacti.  It has won many awards and been featured on RAI TV (the closest thing Italy has to the BBC).  It attracts visitors, professionals and amateurs, from around the world.

Whenever possible I try to visit gardens as soon as they open.   The plants seem fresher. The sun isn’t as harsh.  And sometimes, if you are lucky, for a short, precious bit of time, you have the garden all to yourself.  Since I had set out so early and since the garden was so close, it was still closed when I arrived.  I was looking around for somewhere to sit while I waited for it to open when a young man called out to me,  “Buon giorno!  Vuole visitare il giardino?”  (Good morning. Do you want to visit the garden?)  When I answered yes, he invited me to come in.  I thanked him and said it was OK, I didn’t want to disturb. I’d wait until opening time.  He insisted on letting me in.


Near the entrance, the first clue that room had been made for whimsy in this garden.



And close by things seemed to be growing out of this giarra, an ancient amphora for storing wine and olive oil.


Paths meandered in all directions.


‘Organic’ takes on a whole new meaning when the rocks themselves seem to be sprouting wild, amorphous specimens.

Unlike most Italian gardens I’ve visited, many of the plants are labelled.
In the foreground a lucertola (loo-chair-toe-luh) scuttles by.

Maybe this one was a snake in a previous life.

Were they all snakes in a previous life?




Doesn’t this remind you of a family you know?

They are all just so …improbable.

They are all just so …improbable.


It was such a treat to have the garden all to myself and I was so engrossed in the plants I didn’t notice a rather distinguished man approach me.  Now even though I was in a garden, and even though it was not your typical Italian garden – nothing Renaissance or Baroque here – I was still very aware that I was in Italy.  The Italian word – or rather one of the Italian words – for getting ‘hit on’ is abbordare.  To go aboard.  It doesn’t happen that often any more – there have to be some advantages of being of a ‘certain age’ – and usually I see it coming.  “Venga!  Venga Signora!”  (Come!  Come, Signora!)  He motioned urgently for me to follow him to a section I’d already walked by.  I hadn’t seen anything of interest.  Startled, I just stood there, looking at him.  I had no desire to ‘venga‘ with him – Non ero mica nata ieri (I wasn’t born yesterday) – and how did he know I spoke Italian?  He was insistent.  “Lo so che non l’ha vista.”  (I know you didn’t see it.)  It was broad daylight.  I was in a garden for heaven’s sake.  I followed him.


I couldn’t see anything that would warrant this stranger’s interruption of what had, until his arrival, been a totally delightful experience.  I started to turn away, but he urged me to take a closer look.  And then I saw it – or rather her.  It was una pavone femmina – a female peacock.

And my guide?  Giuseppe d’Ambra, the owner and creator of the garden.  Over the years his passion for cacti, which by the way, are not native to Ischia, or anywhere east of the Atlantic for that matter – they are indigenous to North and South America.  (When the continents divided, the plants that ended up on the east side of the Atlantic took an entirely different route, botanically speaking) – had resulted in a very large collection. So large in fact that it was beginning to threaten conjugal bliss.  Eventually, with the help of a promising, young local landscape gardener, he started transforming an abandoned property on the west side of Ischia.  Soil was brought in.  The old dry stone walls – parracine – were restored and in 2003 his collection was replanted in its new home and the garden opened to the public.

Peppino, as he likes to be called, told me all about the peacock and her consort.  There had been lots of baby peacocks over the years.  A few had graced his dinner table. Delicious meat.   I’m a committed omnivore, but the thought of eating a peacock was unsettling.  To change the direction of the conversation I asked him where the male was.  “Vedrà.  Arriverà fra un po’.”  (You’ll see.  He’ll be here soon.) In the meantime he suggested I continue my explorations.



Talk about splitting a seam!



Reminds me of those days when you just don’t know which way to turn.

This one seems to have got its act together.

This group seems to have got its act together.


Roses and cacti. Who would have thought?


I was just about to enter the “valley of the damigiani”  when the most awful screeching – like a really big crow having a really bad day – shattered the tranquillity.  

IL maschio (the male peacock) had arrived.

Il maschio had arrived.


I had never been so close to a peacock wandering around in complete freedom.  The garden was going to have to be put on hold for a bit. Besides, with its tail fully spread, it totally blocked the path.


So incredibly gorgeous – and so nasty!


Then it turned its back on us. Don’t worry about your eyesight going – the ‘spokes’ look out of focus because he was rattling them so fiercely.  It sounded like bamboo poles being bashed against each other. Very intimidating.


Then the reason for all the ruckus sauntered into view…


… and nonchalantly began to peck away at the ground.  All the while her protector kept up the fierce rattling.


Eventually she found a spot to her liking on higher ground…


…and settled down.  The male stopped his racket and we could all get back to exploring the garden.

On the way back to the valley of the damigiani I saw Peppino again.  He was clearly giving a small group a tour of the garden.

When the young man who had let me in told me there were no guided visits scheduled for that morning I had been a little disappointed.  I thought I had booked one at Ravino, but I was visiting so many gardens on this trip I figured I must have got the gardens mixed up.   Luckily it was a garden that readily lent itself to self-discovery and I had quickly gotten over my initial disappointment.


Anomalie (anomalies) was the botanical term Peppino used to describe the unusual colour variations.

But when I saw Peppino with the group I thought maybe I had booked a tour after all.  I walked over and asked if I could join them – something I am sure I would never have done back home in Canada – and which I most definitely would not have done had I known that the members of the group  were all professionals – nursery owners from Sicily – who had booked a private tour.  Peppino hesitated for just a moment, glanced at the group – I couldn’t tell if they were amused or intrigued – and said “Certo!  Perchè no?”  (Of course!  Why not?)


Even the pros did a double take when we came to this one. No, it’s not another anomolia.
Peppino’s son had decorated this golden barrel cactus with a discarded opuntia ‘paddle’.


Talk about a thorn in your side! The giant Kapok tree – it can grow to 200 feet – was revered by the Mayans,
who believed that the dead could climb its thorny trunk to heaven.


Golden Barrel Cacti, aka the Compass Plant, because of its tendency to lean to the south as it grows
and a baby Cycad – which appears to be growing out of a hunk of lava. All set off beautifully, in my opinion, by one of my favourite annuals – Verbena bonariensis (that’s the purple flower on top of those improbably thin stems).


It was, even for Italy, quite an experience.  And not just because of the extraordinary variety of plants.  Afterwards, Peppino went to great lengths to ensure I understood that the tour was  del tutto particolare and in no way representative of typical tours at Ravino.  I was relieved to learn this.  He and the Sicilians had spent a fair bit of the tour arguing – rather vehemently.  Disease control struck me as the most contentious issue.   I had also been a little surprised by Peppino’s descriptions of what the various insects got up to in the garden.


I was beginning to think that perhaps here Peppino had begun to slide down that slippery slope.


As if he had read my thoughts Peppino stopped in front of this magnificent opuntia to explain that if they did not cut out the centres, the fierce winter winds that raged over this part of Ischia would topple the plants.

At one point, towards the end of the tour, he did hesitate.  He was well into what was obviously going to be a particularly juicy explanation about what a particular bug did when it got to the tree we were standing in front of.  Then he looked at me and asked, “Ma Lei, quanto è che capisce?”  (How much do you understand anyway?)   The Sicilians – all male of course – turned their attention from the tree and watched me.  Cross-culture humour is always a challenge – a challenge made even greater when you add another language to the mix, but I couldn’t resist.  Hoping they would ‘get it’, I replied,  “Probabilmente molto di più di quanto non pensi.” (Probably a lot more than you think.)  There was a second of silence and then they all burst out laughing.  They all took gardening seriously – it was their livelihood – but they could still laugh – at themselves – at me – at that bug.


Just when you think there couldn’t possibly be any more surprises.  Shades of the Mad Hatter?


Amidst all the weird and wonderful plants,
it seemed almost strange to come across something so familiar as this poppy.


On our way to one of Peppino’s most prized plants, we had to keep any eye out for things overhead too.


Wollemia Pine

Peppino led us to a remote corner of the garden.  I was surprised that he would have placed what was obviously his pride and joy, in such an out of the way location.  Then he explained.

Until 1944, when it was discovered in a remote gorge of Australia’s Wollemi National Park, scientists only knew of the existence of the Wollemia Pine through fossil records dating back 200 million years.  Given that several ancient plants,  having managed to survive for millions of years, are now endangered and facing extinction, not because of pollution or any other of the usual environmental suspects, but because of illegal poaching, the location was not disclosed to the public.  Despite this precaution, in 2005 it was discovered that some of the trees were infected by mould – probably introduced by unauthorized visitors.   In one botanical garden, the gardeners had resorted to putting their Wollemia Pine behind bars – in a steel cage – to protect it from theft.  Peppino hoped the remote location would be sufficient protection.

I thanked the group for letting me intrude on their tour and left them to continue arguing while I went off to take a few more photos.  To my surprise, a couple of minutes, later one of them – had the poor fellow drawn the short straw? – came running over to me.   “Signora, mi scusi.  Ma Lei non si è presentata.  Chi è?”  (Signora, excuse me.  But you never introduced yourself.  Who are you?)

It had never occurred to me that they might be interested in knowing anything about the straniera (foreigner) who had ‘crashed’ their private tour and once I realized what was going on, I had tried to be as unobtrusive as possible.  They hadn’t seemed at all upset.  If fact, they had showed the utmost respect and courtesy towards me throughout the tour – insisting that I go first, making sure I saw everything, glancing my way after Peppino told one of his many jokes to see if I had understood.  And I, in return for their courtesy, had violated one of their basic rules of cortesia. I hadn’t introduced myself.  I was mortified.  I sputtered something about gathering material for talks I hoped to give back home.  The ‘scout’ declared it a wonderful idea and wished me “tante belle cose” (tan-tay bell-lay koh-zay) – “all the best” – before he went back to report to the group.  When Peppino approached me later to explain about it having been una visita particolare, he also, very charmingly and with just the slightest hint of admonishment, asked me to ‘present’ myself.

As a fluent speaker of Italian, one of the things that makes travelling around Italy so wonderful is the genuine interest in the ‘other’ that I regularly encounter.  It was something that I had, perhaps because I had been so focused on the garden? – a universal place – momentarily forgotten.  I would do my best not to forget it again.


By now my feet were killing me, but happily it was once again – you guessed – l’ora di mangiare.
Antipasto misto accompanied by a botanical smorgasbord.   Buon appetito!