The Garden That Once Upon a Time Wasn’t There

All Italian fairy tales start with C’era una volta…  (Once upon a time…).  Il Giardino Che Non C’era is the memoir of the garden a young woman and her husband created in what was once a wasteland.  As I read Miki Borghese’s book, I began to wonder if the title was a play on those magical words.  One thing I knew for certain – it was almost ‘The Garden I Didn’t Get to Visit’.

Trying to get into Italy’s gardens can be a very un-dolce vita experience.  (Not sure if I’ve gone on about this before, but I figure if I’ve forgotten, you probably have too.)  Access to the public, or state-owned gardens is generally not too difficult, despite some rather peculiar opening hours.  But if you limit yourself to those, you will miss some of Italy’s most beautiful and most interesting gardens.   Ninfa (Gardening in the Ruins of a Medieval Village, Feb. 15, 2015) comes to mind. Unlike the financially straightened English nobility, the owners of Italy’s private gardens have traditionally been reluctant to open their gates to the public and even though an English woman, Judith Wade, has been working hard to change that (Interesting.  But is it a Garden?  June 8, 2014) they are still extremely difficult to get into, often open by appointment only, for groups of 15 or even more.   Of the eight gardens in Sicily, I wanted to visit, five were private.  Even a group of ‘Me, Myself and I’ wouldn’t get me up to 15.  What to do?


Unlike the big tour bus, my tiny rental car easily passed through the entrance gates. I parked it next to this fabulous trio.

I might be mistaken, but I’ve always felt that having someone local make arrangements gives me a leg up, so I ask the owner of wherever I am staying to call and see if there is a group I can join.   One of the private gardens I hoped to visit was an hour’s drive north of Il Limoneto.  As soon as I had checked in, I asked Dora if she would call.  She gave me a strange look. (mercifully, not the ‘Guard Dog’ look) Even in my jet-lagged state, it was clear that I spoke Italian more than well enough to make the call myself.  I had barely begun to explain when she nodded her head in agreement, yes that was una buona idea. I told her I’d be perfectly fine with a tour in Italian or French, but not German, which I had last studied decades ago.  The Principessa answered the call.  Yes, there was a tour scheduled for May 15, two days hence, at 3 pm.  Dora relayed all this to me and was in the middle of telling the Principessa how delighted I would be to join the tour when suddenly her face fell.  The tour – the only one booked during my four-day stay at Il Limoneto – would be in German.


I left in plenty of time, but by 2:45 I was still driving along a deserted, country road surrounded by a blighted, occasionally foul-smelling landscape.  Those aren’t my words.  ‘Un territorio degradato e spesso maleodorante‘ is how Miki Borghese describes the road to Le Case del Biviere.   “Where are they taking me?”  she suggests, asks the perplexed traveller.  I, who had no ‘they’ taking me anywhere, was so stressata I barely had any mental room left over for perplexity.  I was going to be late, miss the tour, which on top of everything else might reflect badly on Dora.  And then, five minutes before 3, around a curve I saw the enormous cancello verde scuro (dark green gate).  I rang the bell, gave my name and the gates opened.  I drove through.  There was no sign of the group.  I had arrived on time – although barely – while the group, with their professional driver had not.  Mixed up in my relief at having made it was there a tiny note of smugness?   This ignoble sentiment was only aggravated when, as the gate closed behind me, I saw a tour bus coming around the curve.


While the driver manoeuvred the enormous bus to the side of the very narrow road – the drivers of these buses must have nerves of steel – and the group slowly made their way through the gate to the entrance courtyard, I took advantage of my time alone in the garden to take some photos.


Imagine getting up in the morning and stepping out on the little balconcino.


Cephalocereus polylopus, aka…?

Like all real gardeners, Miki knows all the plants in her garden, each with its own posto (place) and spazio (space), and in her memoir tells the stories of some of those plants. The Cephalocereus polylopus next to the staircase was one of her earliest purchases.  (Before you start wondering if I’ve decided to go all hoity-toity and Latiny on plant names, I googled Cephalocereus polylopus, hoping to find a common name, but apart from a reference to ‘Old Man of the Andes’, the only other bit of information that came up was that it was an ‘unresolved’ name.  No idea what that means.)   She bought it from a nursery on the south-west coast of Sicily and planted it in a terracotta pot near its current location.  Years later, when it had outgrown the pot, she set it out in the terrace and for the first time it bloomed.  Every year since, in July and August, it sends up a ruby red flower di grande effetto.


The Dasylirion longissimum, aka Mexican Grass Tree, is said to bloom only once every 10 years. This one first sent up its extraordinary inflorescence in the spring of 2001.  Had it flowered again between then and now (May 2015)?  There was so much to see in the hour-long tour, I got distracted and forgot to ask.

When they were all assembled, the Principessa greeted them – in German – and began to talk about the garden.  She spoke quite slowly and very clearly.  By standing next to her and paying very close attention, I was surprised to find I could understand most of what she said.  (Who knows what long-forgotten bits of knowledge lurk in the depths of our crowded brains, just waiting for an opportunity to burst forth and astonish us?)


La Principessa Borghese greets her German visitors.

After a few introductory comments she invited us to follow her into the chapel where we could all sit comfortably, out of the glaring sun, while she continued with the story of how the garden came to be.  I sat in the front row, where I hoped I would be able to at least get the gist of things.  She had barely started, when she turned to the group’s guide and said – switching to Italian – that since her German wasn’t what it once was, and since the guide could translate, and since there was ‘la signora (looking at me) che solo capisce l’italiano,’ (who only understands Italian) she proposed continuing in Italian and the guide could translate for the group.   I felt a bit badly for the guide, who probably had been looking forward to a relaxing visit and now found herself on the hot seat.  I wondered how she felt about the interloper getting the original, firsthand version of the tour, while her group had to wait for her translation.  I sat there, trying very hard not to look like the cat that swallowed the mouse.


Cappella di Sant’Andrea.  A cool place to hear the story of the garden.

Like so many places in Italy, the story of Le Case del Biviere begins with a legend. Hercules, a prominent figure in Italy’s gardens, starts things off here too.  The first of his Twelve Labours was to kill the Nemean lion, which had been wreaking havoc from its lair near the village of … Nemea.  In one version, the lion, as devious as it was ferocious, would disguise itself as a damsel in distress; a series of brave and noble warriors, passing by the cave would hear the cries of the ‘damsel’ and rush into the cave; as soon as the doomed wretch was close, the damsel would turn back into a lion, and we all know what happened next.  Even in versions that lack the damsel in distress, the lion was a nuisance, and none before Hercules had been able to kill it.  Their mortal weapons could not penetrate its golden fur.  When Hercules gets to the cave there is the usual epic battle, with Hercules of course coming out the winner.  Some time later, Hercules decided to give Ceres, Goddess of the Harvest, a gift.  What better gift for the life-giving goddess than the skin of the once-dreaded lion?  When he got close to the city in southern Sicily where the goddess lived, perhaps feeling a bit frisky, he also decided to create a lake nearby.  In time the city became known as Leontio, from leone, in memory of Hercules’ gift.  Le Case del Biviere is not far from the present-day town which is now called Lentini.


The entrance to Le Case del Biviere is still through the ancient portale, but the bay where fishermen once tied up their boats is now a garden.  The buildings in the background are now in ruins.

So why is it called ‘Le Case (The Houses) of the Biviere‘?  Some time after Hercules, the Arabs arrived and renamed the lake Beveré, from the Arab vevere, meaning ‘watering hole’ or ‘fish hatchery’.  The link is much easier to follow in Italian – abbeveratoio is the modern-day word for ‘drinking trough’.  But when the Borghese family arrived in 1968 there was no lake, not even a water hole for the few, mangy sheep.  It was a desert – un posto desolato, contornato solo da pietre e polvere (a desolate place, surrounded on all sides by rocks and dust).   As part of a campaign to rid Sicily of malaria, the lake had been drained in the 1930’s.  So what prompted them to come to this desolate, barren region?

Seeing and trying hard to believe.  Beyond the low stone walls there was once a lake.  Incredibile -inn-cray-dee-bee-lay.  Unbelievable. even after seeing the photos.

Beyond the low stone walls there was once a lake. Incredibile (in-cray-dee-bee-lay). Unbelievable. Even after seeing the old photos.

Lemons. In her memoir Miki Borghese focuses on the garden, but she gives the reader glimpses of the events that led to the creation of the garden and bound her to Sicily.  For Miki is not a native of the island.  She had been living, quite happily, in Rome when, in the late 1950’s, she and her husband moved to Palermo, where her husband could more easily attend to his properties and business affairs.  After about ten years in Palermo, years in which she had given birth to four children and created a new life for herself, her husband came home one night and – from what I can gather – announced that they would be leaving Palermo and starting a new life on one of his properties in the south-eastern part of the island.  There, on a property that had no water, no vegetation, they would plant citrus trees and grano duro, the wheat used to make pasta.


The last chapter is devoted to letters from various visitors, including one from Clarence House.  The renown of the garden grew so quickly and so widely that in 1988, only 20 years after the Borghese’s arrival, the Queen Mother wrote asking if she might visit.  There is also, translated into Italian, a glowing article which Robin Lane Fox wrote for The Financial Times, in which he declares (I’m translating back into English – couldn’t find the original version) that after a single glance at the property and the future that lay in store for her, a lesser woman would have high-tailed it off to Portofino.


But Miki Borghese was made of a different cloth.  At one point she muses that it might have been her Sardinian background.  When she arrived in 1967, she was 37 years old. She had never had the opportunity nor inclination to create a garden, and her knowledge of things botanical was scarsissima and approssimativa. Extremely scarce and vague.  And, since they didn’t have the means to hire a professional designer, they would have to rely on her fantasia.  The only thing to do was not to let oneself get depressed, to consider oneself a pioneer, to roll up one’s sleeves and try to render liveable a place that was in no way liveable.  But where to begin?


In the bottom right of the above photo, Australian Bottlebrush…

Everywhere she looked there was nothing but dust and rocks.  It was as if the water, offended at having its natural course redirected, had abandoned forever this place that for centuries had been famous for the richness of the fauna and flora.


…and a ‘close-up’ of the pink flowering tree in the top left corner.  Now and then I wish I’d given in to all the people who tell me I really ‘should’ get a better lens. More zoom might have made it easier to ID this gorgeous tree.

I have no delusions about ever learning the names of all the plants in the gardens I visit – especially the tropicals in the gardens of southern Italy.  But now and then, there is one that is so unusual or so beautiful I just have to know.  Close to the house was a map of the garden with the names of all the plants.  The Latin names.  Since I couldn’t remember exactly where I’d taken the photo of the tree with the pink flowers, I gave up trying to locate it from the photo of the map and instead decided to google the names in the plant list at the end of the book until I came up with the right picture.   The list was seven pages long, single-spaced.  The first page wasn’t too bad.  Five acacias, 3 aeoniums and the rest of the page was taken up with agaves – 20 of them.  The first half of page 2 consisted of aloes – 20 of them too – followed by one annona – no luck there and then 2 araucarias.  When I googled ‘araucaria’ the last thing in the world I expected to see (if I’d been thinking of what the last thing in the world I expected to see might be) was ‘Crossword Puzzle Setter’.


It was the obituary of of John Graham, one of England’s best-loved crossword setters.  For over forty years he had created crosswords for a devout following – he received piles of fan letters – under the nom de plume, Araucaria.  Araucaria is the Latin name of a tree that I had always liked and, until now, had known as the Monkey Puzzle Tree.  ‘Puzzle’ is no puzzle and, as for many of us, ‘monkey’ was a term of endearment in Graham’s family.  But – and this gives you an idea of how Graham’s mind worked, as well as the level of complexity of the puzzles he created – the Monkey Puzzle Tree is also known as the ‘Chile Pine’, which is an anagram for ‘Cinephile’.  (He loved movies.)  As for the types of clues, this excerpt from the obit sums it up quite nicely:  ‘The first clue in his first puzzle for the Manchester Guardian set the standard for what was to follow: “Establishment cut to the bone. ”

While all this crossword puzzle business was quite fascinating, not only was I no closer to solving my original puzzle, (the name of the tree with the pink flowers), now I had a new puzzle.  Where was the Araucaria in Miki Borghese’s garden?  I went back over all my photos.  It took me a while, but finally I found it.  Right next to the tree with the pink flowers.


Maybe when the Tabebuia/Bignonia/…? is finished blooming, the Araucaria will stand out more.  And the answer to the human Araucaria’s first clue?  Skeleton staff.

By now I had the proverbial bee in my bonnet.  After following more unhelpful threads the photo I was hoping to find came up.  ‘Pink Trumpet Tree.’  But then I foolishly cross-checked the Latin name.  The photo was fine, but the script was a can of worms.  It turns out that the tree I was interested in, Tabebuia rosea, was a genus in the family Bignoniaceae.  So far so good.  Bignonia (been-yoan-yah) sounded familiar.  But then there was a comment to the effect that in addition to the Tabebuia, a host of other trees are also called Trumpet trees, which has, not surprisingly, led to confusion and misidentification. Playing ‘Angry Birds’ may have been a more useful way to spend my time, but I was so far in I couldn’t give up.  The least implausible explanation I ended up finding was this:  “About thirty species of trees previously placed in the genus Tabebuia, including both trumpet trees, were renamed Handroanthus in 2007, upon discovery that they were more closely related to genera other than Tabebuia. Pink trumpet tree, for instance, is more closely related to the calabash tree (Crescentia cujete) than it is to other species of Tabebuia, such as rosy trumpet tree (T. rosea). Subsequently, our common trumpet trees, Tabebuia chrysotricha and T. impetiginosa, became Handroanthus chrysotrichus and H. impetiginosus.”

If you enjoy driving yourself crazy with this stuff, check out Pacific Horticulture, April 2011.  As for me, I’m going to call it a Bignonia.  Or maybe a Tabebuia.


Elephant Foot Tree, toes and all.


Many of the trees, like this Kapok, were so big, ti was hard to believe they had not been planted that long ago.


A great combo and unlike the tree, this vine with the pink flowers has a name everyone agrees on – Pink Trumpet Vine.


Exotic in all the senses of the word.  (OK, maybe not the dancing.)

A rare, yellow-flowering aloe.

A rare, yellow-flowering aloe.


A prickly sea.

The plant list shows 13 different types of opuntias. I had a feeling that since the book was published more might have made their way into the garden.  The flowers don’t last long, Miki observes, ‘but when we garden we have to learn to enjoy the momenti magici, however brief they may be, that Nature gives us.’


This one, which maybe was 8 inches high, looked like it would topple over any minute from the weight of all those flowers.

The hour was up all too soon and we reluctantly followed the Principessa back to the  entrance courtyard.


The group thanked her and headed back to their bus waiting outside the gate.  The Principessa and I headed in the other direction – she to her house and I to my car.  On the way I told her how much I had enjoyed her garden – something she had doubtless heard hundreds, if not thousands of times before.   Still, she very graciously thanked me for my comments.  Then, a bit hesitantly, I added that, as beautiful as the garden is, the real magic for me lay in the fact that it had been created out of nothing.  I had nothing to worry about.  She smiled at me and said,  ‘Si, quella si è la vera magia.’ Yes, that is the real magic.






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