Simples, a Controversial Cactus and a Black Swan in a Quarry Garden

It’s time for a garden visit.  Even the most passionate gardener needs a break from poring over all those seed catalogues.  Admittedly Puglia, with its long, dry summers and all that limestone is not the first place that comes to mind when you think of gardens, but after a bit of digging around I found one that rivals anything I’ve seen in Tuscany or Italy’s northern Lake District.

I was a little worried about finding it. The hotel staff in Lecce, only 30 k to the north, didn’t seem to know anything about it and the website directions were not encouraging.  The on ramp to the SS16, the most direct route, was closed. PER CAUSE “SCONOSCIUTE”.  The quotations marks around ‘unknown’ struck me as vaguely ominous.


The garden is still something of an undiscovered treasure. As I drove along the isolated country roads I began to wonder.

It’s called La Cutura, from cute (coo-tay), local dialect for pietra (pyay-truh).  Stone.  The first time I saw the name, I did that misreading thing where we unconsciously ‘correct’ typos.  ‘Why do we make mistakes?  Blame your brain, the original autocorrector’ is a wonderfully entertaining rant/explanation by Yuka Igarashi about how our brains fool us into seeing things that aren’t there and unseeing things that are, all in an effort to help us comprehend the world around us (The Guardian, Aug. 9, 2013).   In case you think you’re immune, try ‘reading’ the following:  I cdn’uolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg: the phaonmneel pweor of the hmuan mind.   Surprised?  I was.  And also unnerved.  Although I was glad to learn I’m not the only one who yells at her computer.  Who wants to think they have anything in common with the generation that used to yell at their TV?  In fairness, those TV’s didn’t have Autocorrect, which, after much yelling and jabbing the keys, seems to have finally resigned itself to the fact that Igarashi’s first name is not Luka. There was also something perversely reassuring about Igarashi’s contention that ‘Anyone whose job it is to catch these mistakes – editors, copyeditors, subeditors, proofreaders – has to be an abnormal and malfunctioning human’.  Something to keep in mind the next time, after I’ve gone over and over a post, I still find a couple of typos lingering around.

In any event, on my first read, I – or rather my brain – had added an ‘l’ and I had ‘seen’ La Cultura.  Culture.   As things turned out, my mistake was of the felicitous kind.


The austere entrance – the courtyard of an 18th century masseria (fortified farmhouse) – gives little hint of the garden beyond.

I was somewhat sceptical of the website’s description of the garden.  Such things tend to be on the florid side in Italian, but this one was especially so.   La Cutura is not just a garden, but a museum of life that stimulates the visitor’s most hidden senses, awakening a profound desire to learn not felt since childhood. A place born in stone where the visitor is overwhelmed by the marvel of existence and the perfect harmony of nature and pleasure.

I decided to take things easy and start with the Giardino dei Semplici.  Garden of the Simples.


The cows and their calves who once grazed within the walls have long been replaced by a variety of ‘simples’.  Plants like sage, artemisia, lavender and mint, all the herbs and medicinal plants of the medieval convent garden.


Hidden amongst the roses and other showy perennials apparently there are some herbs.

Comparisons are odious, I know, but as I walked around the walled garden – which frankly looked more like a rose garden than an herb garden – I couldn’t help thinking of another garden of ‘simples’ I’d visited.  The Jardin des Simples at the Château de Villandry in the Loire.  (‘Of Cabbages and Kings, Aug. 17, 2014) With its extravagant topiary and geometrically clipped borders, it was hard to see how the French garden had anything in common with the one I was in right now.


Those medieval monks must have used a lot of rose water in their tinctures. Or maybe they made a lot of rose hip tea.

Here the plants were allowed to grow freely, to all appearances untouched by human hands.  If the herb garden was any indication, this was not like any botanical garden I’d ever visited. I headed to the Giardino Roccioso. The Rock Garden.


Was it the ancient walls that added to the sense you really were on a voyage of discovery?

If I hadn’t been following the guide I would never have guessed I was in a rock garden. The first thing that hits you is the Opuntia.  50 varieties of it and all absolutely gorgeous.


In May the Opuntia, aka Prickly Pear, looks like it’s covered in roses.

I’d always associated rock gardens with pristine, somewhat austere, alpine settings.  Or minimalist scree-type creations.


It’s hard to see the rocks for the Opuntia. Which is more amazing – the blooms or the thorns?

I tore myself away from the Opuntia to an area that looked more like a traditional rock garden.  Although even here the rocks were overshadowed by a fabulous collection of artfully half-buried amphoras.


Looking for some more atmosphere in your garden? Try a cleverly half-buried amphora or two.

The Rock Garden was designed to recreate the landscapes of South America where many of these plants originate. In addition to the Opuntia, there are 80 varieties of Agave and ‘numerous’ varieties of cacti.


As this Agave unfolds, the spikes leave a fascinating pattern.

It was the botanical equivalent of being a kid in a candy jar.


And when you remembered to look up, there were more of nature’s diversità affascinanti.


With so much going on a ground level it’s easy to miss the plants towering above.


Peppino, the owner of Giardino Il Ravino on Ischia had called these colour variations ‘anomalies’.

There are 11 gardens in all, so you have to push on if you want to see the whole thing.  Next to the so-called Rock Garden is La  Serra  (sair-ruh) di Piante Grasse e Tropicali.  The Greenhouse of  Succulents and Tropical Plants.  Note the double ‘r’ in serra.  You don’t want to be caught wishing someone a pleasant greenhouse.   (Buona sera – Good Evening – has only one ‘r’.  Bwoh-nuh seh-ruh)

In any event the outdoor gardens were so captivating I wasn’t keen on ‘wasting’ time in the greenhouse.  That would have been a BIG mistake.  Luckily, on one of my visits I managed to join a guided visit led by Dr. Salvatore Cezzi, the creator of La Cutura.


The greenhouse is enormous.  It has to be to contain the 2,000 or so succulents and tropical plants that Dr. Cezzi had collected over the previous four decades.


Despite his reputation as a world-renowned expert in the genre, Dr. Cezzi was a surprisingly low-key guide. Maybe he knew the plants would speak for themselves.


In all the confusion and amidst all those thorns it’s a wonder this plant managed to pull off even one bloom. Yet look at all those buds.


The essence of ‘higgledy-piggledy’.


I wonder if fashion designers visit places like this for inspiration.


Good thing they move so fast. I was so focused on the plants I might have stepped on one of them.


Most of the flowers were red, but there were a few pink ones.


A shoe shot. In case you thought the pink flower was one of those little gems.

Some of the plants were just plain unbelievable.


Looks so soft and furry.


They say seeing is believing, but even as I stood staring at it and even as I look back on my own (unadulterated) photo I have a hard time believing this is for real.

And then there were the monsters and the crests.  Those are actually the accepted botanical terms for what we were looking at.  The bizarre shapes are a result of a disruption in the normal function of the apical meristem, which, for the initiated like me, is the plant’s growth centre.  Its HQ.  In a nutshell, this is how it goes.  In the normal course of events the apical meristem produces new cells from a single point and the new cells push the older cells outward in a more or less symmetrical pattern.  Which is why stems and branches are roundish.  But now and then something comes along – a change in light intensity, bacteria, hail, an insect infestation, some well-meaning person over-waters the plant – and the cells start growing along a line instead of from a single point.  Now, instead of expanding outward in all directions, the plant starts to flatten, resulting in fans and crest-like protuberances.  Not surprisingly – remember the striped aberrations that went for astronomical prices during the 17th century Tulip mania? – the mutations have become coveted collectors’ items.


A modern – or is it post-modern? – sculpture by Mother Nature. Myrtilocactus geometrizan crestato.

Personally, I’m not into mutants.  As much as I love the striped tulips – especially the pale green, pink and white ones – there is something creepy about beauty caused by a virus or a bacterial infection.  A bit further on was a gorgeous, more or less normal clump – I’m not sure if the upright bits are part of the snaking thing at its base – that had sprouted flowers in my favourite colour.


With all the strange and wonderful things grabbing our attention, the group started to splinter.  Some of us fell behind while others went on ahead.  Dr. Cezzi didn’t seem at all fazed by this until, all of a sudden he got molto agitato and in a tone that was markedly at odds with the laid-back approach we’d seen so far, called us over to where he was standing.  Next to a plant we had barely glanced at.


There is more to this plant than meets the eye.

The unassuming-looking little plant is called Hoodia gordonii and Dr. Cezzi was so agitated because it is at the centre of one of the most egregious cases of biopiracy in recent times.  Nomadic Bushmen, who have long known of its ability to suppress appetite, eat the stems to stave off hunger during long hunting trips to the deserts of South Africa and Namibia, its natural habitat.  But when agents from the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research learned of its appetite suppressing qualities, they saw not a plant that helps humans survive extremely harsh conditions, but a plant that in the multi-million dollar weight-loss industry would make them a lot of money.  They lost no time patenting the plant and then sold the rights to Unilever, one of the largest packaged-food firms in the world, who began a world-wide campaign marketing hoodia products as an all-natural, easy way to lose weight.   Even the BBC (in 2003) and 60 Minutes (Nov. 21, 2004) aired shows on the miracle plant.  Many of the Bushmen had their land confiscated and taken over by outsiders eager to cash in on the craze.  As collectors and growers poached the plant in its natural habitat, the Bushmen found fewer and fewer on their hunting trips and it ended up on the (ever-growing) list of endangered plants.  Despite numerous lawsuits and controversies as to its effectiveness and safety as a weight loss tool, hoodia products are still being sold.

Chastened, we followed Dr. Cezzi outside.  There was no gradual transition.  We went straight from the desert to a lush, tropical pond.


The lily pad pond is topped up with water from a cistern that stores rain water.

Nearby was Il Bosco.  It was like we were on a mini tour of the world through its trees.  A couple of spiky ones really caught my attention.


The spiky trunk of the Silk Floss Tree from the tropical and subtropical forests of South America.

Unlike the Silk Floss Tree, which while impressive didn’t pose any real danger – unless I suppose you tripped and fell onto its trunk, a tree close by was another matter.  As we approached it, Dr. Cezzi warned us not to get too close.  The thorns coming out of the trunk of this tree were more like miniature lances.  Get impaled on one of these and you’d be in serious trouble.  Its official name is Acacia erioloba, but it’s more commonly known as the Giraffe Thorn Tree.


This native to the drier parts of southern Africa can grow up to 17 meters tall.  Perfect for a giraffe.


Somehow giraffes, who go crazy for the leaves, manage to get their tongues around the long thorns without getting stabbed.

As I learned more about La Cutura, it began to have a surprisingly familiar ring.  La Cutura was created on the site of a former limestone quarry.  There is a garden on Canada’s west coast that was also created on the site of a former limestone quarry.  Dr. Cezzi, who had created La Cutura, was an ex-banker.  The woman who was largely responsible for creating the garden in Canada was the wife of a retired cement mogul.  Close enough.  If they’d lived in the same country, they would undoubtedly have travelled in the same social circles.   And, a final serendipitous touch, the Canadians called their haven Benvenuto,  Italian for ‘Welcome’.  Although nowadays – many of you will already have guessed – the world knows it as Butchart Gardens.

At the far edge of the property was the newest addition to the gardens – the Roseto (roh-zay-toe).  Rose Garden.


Il Roseto, ‘born’ in 2010.  Dr. Cezzi was not happy. There had been a heavy rain the night before and the roses were sciupate (shoe-pah-tay). Ruined.


I thought they looked lovely.

Often, as I walk through the gardens of Italy – and France – I’ve noticed that after a while I begin to lose that sense of being in a foreign country.  In any country really.  Even if the plants and design are quite different from those back home. Even if the people around me are not all speaking English. Maybe it has something to do with some universal quality of gardens.  Or maybe with the daily exposure to languages from all over the world that are part of living in a cosmopolitan city like Toronto.  In any event, the view beyond the garden fence – the vegetables, poppies, grape vines and the huge olive trees – left no doubt as to where I was.


A classic farmer’s field in Puglia.

What did seem strange – out of place almost – was the Giardino all’Italiana.


The clipped boxwood and yew and the formal geometry of the (so-called) classic Italian garden.

It had the strangest effect on me.  As if I’d been transported back to Tuscany. The only other time this had happened was in the Giardini Giusti in Verona, where a homesick exile from Tuscany had created a garden to remind of his homeland. (In the City of Star-Crossed Lovers, Apr. 5, 2016)  The Pugliesi are very proud of their region.  Somehow I got the feeling this garden was less about a longing for somewhere else, than a desire to show that the (oft-maligned) ‘heel’ of Italy could produce a garden that rivalled those of the much more famous – and much more visited region in the north.


Way off to one side was an enormous fenced off area.  Signs reminded visitors to ensure the gates were firmly closed behind them.  This was the realm of the fauna – over 100 animali da cortile e ornamentali.  I recognized the screeching of one of the ornamental animals long before I reached the gate.


The peacock is a well-loved symbol of immortality throughout southern Italy. And it seems to know it.


I had to wait quite a while before it deigned to turn around.

There were all sorts of ‘courtyard’ animals too.


There have to be a couple of eyes in there somewhere. Love the foot covers.


Having a bad hair day?

Off to one side was a fenced area with a large pond.  Sitting on the island in the middle of the pond was the symbol of all things that cannot be, that should not be.  But, now and then are.  A black swan.  The creature that up until the end of the 17th century, when Dutch explorers ‘discovered’ them in western Australian, was believed to be as real as the unicorn. Not long before this trip I had read a fascinating book about black swans.  Only the swans in this book were of a featherless nature. They were the highly improbable, highly impactful events or circumstances that according to the author, Nassim Taleb, have been responsible for almost all major scientific discoveries, historical events, and artistic accomplishments in the history of mankind and the world.  And will continue to do so.

It’s pretty heady stuff, but it’s not as heavy going as you might think.  Taleb, clearly seeking to attract as wide a readership as possible, writes in a surprisingly un-expert style and breaks concepts down into easily digestible bits like ‘How to Learn from the Turkey’, ‘Remembrance of Things Not Quite Past’, ‘To Be Wrong with Infinite Precision’ and one of my favourites – ‘Learning from Mother Nature, the Oldest and the Wisest.’  The book is called “The Black Swan:  The Impact of the HIGHLY IMPROBABLE.”  Irresistible.


Enterprising explorers brought back black swans – the feathered variety – to England where private collectors paid handsome prices for the ‘exotics’, but over the years many of them escaped and headed to more natural habitats, where they now pose a serious threat – they are extremely aggressive, even apparently to humans – to the white natives.


When the black swan got up and headed for the water, I thought, Uh oh!,  but he and his two white companions seem to have reached some sort of détente.  Not a feather was ruffled.

It was a long walk back to the entrance, which gave me lots of time to notice things I’d missed earlier and to think about what a wonderful experience it had been.  And one I had just stumbled on by chance.  Why wasn’t La Cutura better known?  Why wasn’t it more crowded? (Not that I didn’t mind having so much of it to myself.)  In comparison, close to a million visitors go to Canada’s Butchart Gardens, every year.  Granted, and I feel safe I’m not being swayed by national pride when I say this, the gardens at Butchart are on a grander scale.  But still.  Perhaps La Cutura shares the same fate as many of Italy’s wonderful gardens. Even those in Tuscany.  There are just too many other, must-see sites vying for the tourist’s limited time.  Maybe, as more of us Slow Travellers hit the roads, there will be more visitors to lesser known treasures like La Cutura.



2 thoughts on “Simples, a Controversial Cactus and a Black Swan in a Quarry Garden

  1. This may be one of my favourite of your posts. And favourite garden. Barry Parker would love it. Those cacti and succulents are stupendous. It makes all the difference in the world that you were there when so much was in bloom, esp the cacti. Fabulous post!!

    • Hi Lauretta, Thank you for your comments. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. And yes, it makes all the difference to see a garden at the height of its blooming period, which is why, as hard as it is – especially during a gloomy winter like this one – I wait until May to go on my trips. May 17 – back to Sicily – can’t come soon enough! Mille grazie, Donna

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