The Grand Tour

Nice - Switzerland - Milan - Rome - Naples - Ischia - Nice. Join Corsica's own Jacques Deleuze for a palmy Christmas, and meet the biggest Nanny in the world.
Jacques Deleuze, Bocca alla Leccie, 20230 San Nicolao, Corsica, France
Chamaerops No. 8, published online 23-10-2002

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Heavily armed: Thritrinax campestris

After our trip to Sardinia last year, Martin Gibbons and I decided to visit Italy and the Swiss border and last Christmas provided the ideal opportunity.

I met Martin on Saturday, 22nd December at Nice airport and after quickly hiring a car we set off for the Swiss border via Lugano to Lake Maggiore. Here we were to meet with fellow IPS/ EPS member Andy Peter who had recently moved to the south of Switzerland to start a cold hardy palm nursery.

As we headed northeast for Genoa, it was very noticeable that the temperature was falling and indeed, it proved necessary to turn on the car heater! A great contrast to milder Nice behind us. On reaching the Swiss border, some hours later, the reason for the colder conditions became clear - a traditional Swiss welcome - SNOW!

Soon, our spirits were lifted by the sight of a Trachycarpus and very quickly, more and more lining the streets. When we arrived at Andy's we could only think of how tough Trachys are to stand this climate. Ahead of us a nice evening spent talking of - well I guess you know what?

After a comfortable night in a simple but cosy hotel, we made an early start, opening the hotel window to discover more snow had fallen, covering the Trachys in every garden. What an unusual sight for me! It was easy to imagine, for getting the houses and the cars that we were in the high Himalayas. After meeting with Andy again, we drove to Brissago where Carl Schell cultivates his famous garden, on the almost sheer slope of the mountain, leading down to the lake itself.

I was both excited and anxious about meeting Carl and at last seeing his great garden. After reading Roy Kyburz's article in Principes, I could hardly believe that such a great variety of tender palms could be grown with little or no protection here. After meeting us in town, Carl drove us to his car park, perched some 15 metres above his house. The final, almost vertical, descent to his home is by mini cable railway.

Here we were made very welcome by his charming wife with the help of hot coffee and delicious home made Christmas biscuits. This fare was eaten with relish in a room with panoramic views of the snow-covered mountains surrounding us, and their reflection in the lake some 80 metres directly below.

We were abruptly awakened from this dream-like moment by stepping out into the cold air to view the palms! In common with almost every palm lover, Carl has the palm collector's disease! He has assembled a good collection of mostly seedling plants, many in pots, overwintered under glass.

Close to the house, but outdoors, grows a number of larger plants, which are protected in winter by a bubble plastic screen. Close planting has been undertaken to make full use of the limited space available.

After a hasty, but fine meal, Carl drove us to the home of Dr Manfred Walder in a less protected valley. Here we were treated to the magnificent sight of a true forest of Trachycarpus fortunei, totally naturalised. Manfred has used his considerable knowledge to introduce rare and complimentary plants from Bhutan and China including Rhododendrons and Pines, which set the Trachycarpus off to perfection.

Two special treasures in this garden grow next to one another: a variegated T. fortunei, and a young specimen of Trachycarpus martianus, certainly the only example in Switzerland. Under glass, due to the uncertain climate, a large Ceroxylon utile waits, confined for now, to a pot.

On the return journey to Locarno, we stopped to admire a huge Jubaea chilensis, which was moved a few years ago to make room for a car park (see Chamaerops #7). Other palms planted there include Chamaerops humilis, Brahea armata and Butia capitata, all healthy and large. Sadly, the garden on the Isle of Brissago was closed for the winter, so we could not visit this palm-rich garden, with its mature Phoenix theophrastii.

Christmas eve saw us heading for Milan leaving behind the clear blue sky of Switzerland for the smog that surrounds this Italian city. Nothing here to offer the palm-lover, we were glad to leave on Christmas Day, crossing the Apennines en route for Rome.

We arrived in Rome during late afternoon, and immediately made our way to the Piazza Cavour to admire the palms and meet our guide, Francesco De Santis. Here grow marvellous Chamaerops humilis with trunks 4 metres tall and many other palms common to the Mediterranean area. Francesco explained that palms have long been popular in the great city of Rome and that it would be an impossible task to see all of them, so many having been planted in small piazzas and private gardens. Because of this popularity, Francesco is just beginning to establish a palm society for the whole of Italy, beginning with fellow IPS members. Their first task will be to study Beccari's works and compile an inventory of the palms growing in the larger towns.

The next day we decided to visit the Botanic Gardens in Rome, but, alas, we had forgotten it was December 26th and that the garden was closed! As our schedule was tight, we instead made our way north to Naples. Later that morning we wound our way through the narrow and busy streets of this crowded city, where the drivers have no respect for road safety! As the public park we intended to visit was also closed we instead toured the city itself with friends who live in this crazy place, but we were caught out by a change in the weather, which suddenly became windy and cold.

As nothing more could be done in Naples that day we decided to spend the night on the beautiful island of Ischia about 10 kilometres into the Bay of Naples. Here we were made very welcome by friends of Francesco, who provided a typical and delicious Isehian meal. This thawed us out and gave us the strength to brave the anticipated cold of the next morning.

After the disappointments of the previous day, the 27th saw us making an early start, catching the boat for Naples at 6am. It was not as cold as we had expected due to a blanket of clouds that had formed overnight, and this was most welcome.

After disembarking the ferry, we headed straight to the Botanic Gardens once again. It was still closed, but we fortunately met a worker who allowed us inside. Luck was with us once more because there we met a cycad researcher, Sr. Paolo Caputo who offered to show us what is possibly the best collection of cycads in the world. We accepted! Paolo has subsequently become a very welcome member of the EPS.

After this, we had the garden to ourselves, and took a leisurely stroll around the palm collection. Highlights of this collection are two plants of Trithrinax campestris - one of which carried immature fruit - a genuine Rhapis humilis and a fine collection of Chamaedoreas. Mention must also be made of two spiny palms, Rhapidophyllum hystrix making large clumps, and a well-grown and healthy looking Trithrinax acanthocoma.

Naturally we left Naples and its fantastic garden feeling very happy. Even the sun shone brightly and warmed the air for us! On the return journey to Rome we stopped briefly at a nursery and spent the evening at a Roman-style restaurant where good food and wine was served in plenty - all evening.

We managed to make an early start the next day, and at 9am sharp began our visit to the Rome Botanic Garden. Now maintained by the city of Rome, this small garden has a very varied collection and owes many of its rare and large palms to its former owners, the Corsini family. They were friends of Beccari and Ricasoli who distributed many palms, often for the first time, to cultivation.

The most notable of these great old plants must be the Nannorrhops ritchiana, which presents the most amazing sight. Two trunks, each an incredible 8 metres in length, snake along the ground with smaller stems, some 4 metres tall, arising from the base. This plant seems to fruit every year with viable seed. It is therefore difficult to understand why seed of this palm has until recently been so impossible to obtain, given the huge quantity produced over the years by this plant. This must represent the largest specimen of this species in the world.

Close to the Nannorrhops grows a 6m tall palm that provoked some discussion between Martin and myself: Clearly a Trachycarpus, but with very regular leaf splits. T. martianus we thought? But all the old leaves were retained, in the manner of T. fortunei. Also it bore reniform (kidney-shaped) fruits, which T. martianus does not. Subsequent discussion with Dr. Dransfield at Kew indicated that regular/irregular leaf splits on Trachycarpus are not the reliable key to identification that they were once considered. The answer then was this: it is Trachycarpus takil, introduced there by Beccari, and still going strong. And this, I must guiltily admit, is what the plant was labelled!

On a small hill above the other palms, grow two fine clumps of Brahea dulcis, which were carrying unripe fruit. Since the flowering of this species does not coincide with the other Braheas growing in the garden, the seed is true to type.

To round off our visit to this very interesting garden, I must mention two palms that would not be out of place growing in the city of Pisa: A Trithrinax acanthocoma, at least 6 metres tall, growing at an alarming angle, and also a big Jubaea, just as tall, leaning dangerously. If you're in Rome, the garden is well worth a visit.

We left sunny Rome, taking the coast road north attempting to reach Porto Ercole where the Cino Corsii garden is located, in a very pretty spot. By 5pm we arrived at the garden and were warmly received by Cino. Without wasting any time we entered the garden to see how much it had been improved since Rolf Kyburz visited. Cino has a fine collection of palms and other exotic plants and we much appreciated the opportunity to look around.

It was nice to see again a large Nannorrhops and were interested by the reduction in leaf size, which indicated that the plant would soon flower. I was later informed by Cino that it did indeed bloom in June. Several of the older palms carried war wounds, a result of allied bombing during the war, which left scars and holes in some of the old trunks.

With an overnight stop in Livorno to break the long car journey back to Nice, our exciting Christmas trip was nearing its end. 2000 kilometres travelled in six days. We were tired but happy and it had certainly been an unusual way to spend Christmas.

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  23-03-19 - 23:00GMT
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