Italian gardeners have it so easy in so many ways. All that sunshine. A mostly temperate climate. No late spring frosts to kill off newly planted seedlings. No heart-breaking ice storms to bring down beloved trees. And as far as struggling with the names of the plants they put in their gardens, what’s to learn when all those Latin names that plague us English-speaking gardeners are almost identical to the Italian? Take the caper bush. The Latin name is ‘Myrtus communis’. And the Italian name? Mirto commune.
I had first seen caper bushes growing wild in Puglia, the ‘heel’ of Italy’s boot. I was on my way to the centro storico of Ostuni one day in early May. Vine-like bushes spilled over the low wall by the side of the road. They were covered with dozens, maybe hundreds, of utterly charming little flowers.
Further down the road I noticed a vecchietto (old man). He was muttering unhappily to himself as he rummaged around in the bushes, putting whatever he found in a plastic shopping bag. A local, one-man clean-up operation? While I was still fiddling with the photos he caught up with me. We exchanged ‘Buon giorno’s’ and he gave a nod of approval at my camera. “Una bella pianta”, he declared. (A beautiful plant.) Then he showed me what was in his bag. Hundreds of unopened buds. A shadow of disapproval must have crossed my face, but instead of dismissing me as yet another straniera (foreigner), ignorant of local customs, he left off his rummaging for a moment to explain.
Capers, those tiny, part salty, part vinegary things we put on pizzas and pasta, are the unopened buds of the flowers I had been admiring. His unhappy muttering was because of all the buds that had opened, making them, in his opinion, sciupato – shoe-pa-toh (ruined).
The surprises didn’t end there. Since the time of the ancient Romans mirto has been revered as la Pianta dell’amore. (Even if you don’t speak Italian, you know what that means.) At the summer solstice young lovers would exchange branches of mirto as a symbol of their mutual fidelity. On their wedding day, brides were crowned with a wreath of mirto, symbolizing long-lasting conjugal happiness. During the Middle Ages, those anxious to preserve love – and beauty – relied on Acqua degli Angeli (Water of the Angels), a liquid distilled with the flower.
The other garden I had come to Ischia to visit – La Mortella – was named after the simple, yet beautiful plant. What, you might reasonably be wondering, does that have to do with mirto? It took me a while to figure that one out. Although, as soon as I landed on the island and heard the locals speaking, I should have guessed. They all spoke napoletano, the incomprehensible – at least to me – Neapolitan dialect. I don’t know why this came as a surprise. Ischia is less than 50 km from Naples. And the Neapolitan word for Mirto is… Mortella.
The story of how La Mortella came to be is una storia d’amore as magical and improbable as the legends surrounding its name. I later wondered if the name was chosen because of the plant’s ability to survive the inhospitable landscape or because of the legends…
Unlike upscale, commercial Capri nearby, the island of Ischia has long been the preferred choice of the artistically inclined. After World War II a renowned British composer and his young Argentinian wife also decided to make the island their home. Here he continued to compose music and she set about creating a garden. Luckily for us, in 1991 her garden was opened to the public.
It all started at a press conference in Buenos Aires for Sir William Walton, considered by many to be one of greatest English composers of the 20th century. There, ‘across the crowded room’, as if in a real-life enactment of “Some Enchanted Evening” (you have to be ‘of a certain age’ to know this one – it’s from the musical ‘South Pacific’) he caught sight of Susana, the 22 year-old Argentinian employee of the British Consulate who had organized the press conference. A few hours later he proposed. And she accepted. Two months later they married and left for Europe. But after just a short time in England they set off for southern Italy, where they lived for the rest of their lives. Initially I assumed the damp, dreary climate was too much for the Argentinian newlywed, but the move was Sir William’s idea. He had been captivated by the blue skies and warmth of southern Italy ever since a summer spent on the Amalfi Coast while he was still an undergrad.
From the entrance a path leads to the ‘Valley Garden’. It’s a shady, humid place. Another world. As we make our way to the Fontana Bassa (Lower Fountain), it is difficult to keep in mind that this was once a desolate, craggy landscape. ‘A quarry’ was how Laurence Olivier, one of Sir William’s friends, described it on an early visit.
It took seven years of back-breaking labour just to prepare the site. Enormous boulders – remnants of previous volcanic eruptions – had to be moved. Walled terraces had to be built up the mountainside. And, most important of all, the severe shortage of fresh water on the island had to be dealt with.
When the Walton’s bought the property, fresh water was still brought over to the island by ferry and then transported around the island by truck. But the truck drivers refused to deliver water to La Mortella during the daytime, fearing the locals would be angry if they saw good water ‘wasted on flowers.’ For years Susanna had to stay up all night to oversee the filling of her water tanks. It wasn’t until the late 50’s, when an underwater pipeline was built from the mainland, that one of the most important elements of the garden – the fountains – could be added.
The lack of water wasn’t the only challenge. Convincing Russell Page, at the time already a celebrated landscape architect, to come down and design the garden tested even Lady Walton’s determination. He eventually agreed to make the trip, probably more because of his great admiration for William’s music, than out of any desire to design a garden on the island. “You have to remember”, Lady Walton observed years later, “that Ischia was very ‘south’ in those days.”
After the garden was completed – as far as a garden is ever ‘completed’ – Lady Walton was asked about her decision to turn the craggy hillside into a lush, tropical oasis. “I must have been totally, totally mad,” she laughed.
When he finally did arrive in 1956, Page apparently refused to climb the hill that was to form the backbone of the garden. “It’s so rough and wild, darling”, he objected, “just leave it like that.”
There are so many paths it was easy to get lost. Pleasantly lost of course. The first time round I took the path to the left. According to the garden map, at the top of the steps there was a small greenhouse. I was curious. Why would they go to all the trouble of building a greenhouse in such a warm climate?
There was a bench by the fountain. Very tempting. I’m sure it would have been absolutely delightful to sit there a while, but to the left of the fountain is…
This alone was worth the trip to the island. I read later that a scale reproduction had been mounted at the Chelsea Flower Show of 2000.
For many the star of the little greenhouse is the Victoria amazonica, the giant water lily native to the shallow waters of the Amazon. I’d only seen it once before – ironically in a garden on Lake Maggiore in the far north of Italy. It can grow up to 2.5 – some say 3 metres in diameter. But, for me, its most extraordinary feature isn’t how big it can grow. It’s what its flower does.
The white female flower, which, on top of everything else, is extremely fragrant, starts rising from the surface of the lily pad – up to a foot above the water. At dusk it opens and stays open until late the next morning. Then it closes. When it reopens late that afternoon it is reddish-purple and has become male. It stays that way until it eventually sinks into the water and disappears. Sadly, there were no flowers the day I visited.
It’s absolutely stunning of course, but it’s things like this that make me lose all interest in learning plant names.
The Latin name is ‘Thunbergia mysorensis’. A mouthful, but manageable. But it’s also known as ‘Indian Clock Vine’ – and ‘Brick & Butter Vine’ – and ‘Lady’s Slipper Vine’ – and ‘Dolls’ Shoes’ – and, and, and…
The only reason I was eventually able to drag myself away was because I could tell from the map that there was a lot more garden to explore.
After they bought the land, for five years the Walton’s lived in a converted wine cellar they rented from a local peasant (we can only imagine what the locals thought of the young couple!) while their house was built. Russell Page described the finished structure as a Minoan palace. We do know what the locals thought of the house – they called it ‘la caserma’ (the barracks). Over time, of course, the plants softened the edges of the caserma. Somewhat.
To the right of the main building is the music room, where Walton worked on his music while Susana worked on the garden. I could hear strains of piano. It was probably visiting students rehearsing for one of the evening concerts held in the open air theatre further up the hillside.
I started the long climb up. I learned later that there was another way to reach the top. By car. There is a parking lot right next to a second upper entrance. But I didn’t have a car and after three days touring the island by bus – three days in which I’d had plenty of time to observe the locals drive – I was glad I didn’t.
The day they bought the property Sir William had declared the natural stone pyramid, an ancient boundary marker, to be “his rock”. According to his wishes, his ashes were buried inside.