Roma '96

Tony's write-up of our summer meeting in Rome. 'City of Palms'. If you weren't there, you'll wish you had been.
Tony King, 34 Keats Avenue, Romford, Essex, UK
Chamaerops No.24, Autumn Edition 1996

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(Photos by John Churcher and Tony King)

The last days of August and beginrdng of September saw the long awaited arrival of the third EPS 'get- together', on this occasion in the wonderful city of Rome.

On or just before the 29th August, 54 members and their families from 11 countries checked into the excellent Turner Hotel, just by the ancient city wall of central Rome, which was to be our base for the next 4 days of scheduled activities. For many of us it provided an ideal opportunity to renew old friendships and of course forge fresh ones.

As in any event of this size and complexity, much hard work had gone on 'behind the scenes' over many months prior to our arrival. A carefully arranged and tempting programme of events had been put together by our 'host' in Rome, member Dario Peso who came to be a real 'Mr Fix-it' for which everything we asked of him 'was no problem'! Thank you again Dario!

Our first full day

Bright and early the next morning we assembled in front of the hotel for the coach that was to take us to our three gardens chosen for the day. These were all located in Rome itself and the first, the Villa Sciara, saw the coach winding through the spectacular heart of Rome, taking us across the river Tiber and providing a mini sightseeing tour in itself.

Villa Sciara is a large garden, perched on a hillside overlooking Rome. We were met by Paola Lanzara who provided some history of the garden and led a tour of the main planted area. Dario was on hand to translate Paola's commentary. The villa itself is currently being renovated and belongs to the German academy, indeed it appeared to require much restoration work. Although the site has been occupied since Roman times, given its prominent command overlooking central Rome, the original villa and wall-s that surround the garden were constructed around 1600 by Prince Barbarini. An enemy of the Pope at that time, large defensive walls were constructed around the entire property.

From 1902 the property came under the ownership of a wealthy family from Philadelphia in the USA who, during the 1920's and 30's spent a considerable sum on 'creating an Englisb/Italian' style garden. 10 species of palm were introduced from nurseries on the Italian Riviera, along with a range of conifers and shrubs, even a topiary garden was created. During the second world war the property was somewhat neglected, in fact the gardeners that remained 'finished off tbe last of the peacocks that previously enjoyed the freedom of the garden, the only peacocks around today are topiary ones.

Despite its 'neglected charm' the garden is home to large old specimen plants, many of which are palms. Principal amongst these are two fruiting Jubaeas providing a good opportunity to collect some seed, many Butia capitata, showing the variability that can be seen in the appearance of these palms, and large Wasitingtonias. A good introduction to the gardens of this city.

Back on board the coach we headed to the Piazza Cavour in the heart of Rome making a brief stop en route to pay homage to a large Livistona chinensis that Dario had noticed that day growing in the front garden of a house!

The Piazza is surrounded by busy roads, (ALL roads in Rome are busy!), but provides a quiet place to sit and have lunch or a welc ome drink. I should add that the weather during our stay was great with warm, sunny days and lovely summer evenings, perfect for garden visits. The palms in the Piazza were carefully placed to a pattern and again were large and well established specimens. Especially notable were the tall Brahea armata carrying their long Infructescences, quite spectacular, as well as a number of Phoenix, again showing great xariability in appearance.

From here we again boarded the coach for our final destination and picnic lunch, the Villa Torlonia. Again, a large villa in urgent need of repair but the substantial grounds at least providing welcome service as a public park. Whilst enjoying our lunch on the steps of the villa we were joined by a newly wedded couple who had arrived to have their wedding photos taken in the garden... certainly a very picturesque place but I guess they hadn't counted on the EPS getting there first!

Again a property with a long history, the Villa's most famous occupant must surely have been Mussolini, who would have seen the garden in its better days. Elsewhere on the property, which has numerous disused out- buildings, stands what remains of a once great conservatory. Lt must have been a truly spectacular sight when fully glazed. Amazingly we could determine high up and back amongst the ruins, the foliage of a large cycad, probably Encephalartos horridus . . . how long has it survived on just rainwater?!

Notable plants in this garden are many large clumps of Chamaerops humilis, several individuals of which had fallen, only to continue to grow in the manner of large Serenoa repens! A group photo in fact was taken with us all sitting along such a trunk! Numerous and sizeable Sabals also grew here as did at least one large Brahea edulis which was carrying ripe fruit. Again, numerous Phoenix palms, especially around the entrance where they accompanied an Egyptian obelisk, making an incredible sight. Most were in fruit and each trees' fruits varied in colour encompassing all shades of red, orange and yellow.

The day drew to a close and luckily the hotel was but a short distance down the road, so we could prepare for...

Day two

The 31st, and an early start for the nursery of Tor San Lorenzo, south of Rome and apparently the largest in Europe. Normally open only to trade customers we were treated to a tour of this enormous nursery and a chance to select purchases from palms, cycads, cacti and succulents and much, much more.

We left here after a few hours for a %course lunch at a special restaurant, before taking a short walk down to Dario's house. Here we were treated to a tour of his wonderful garden, enjoying drinks and snacks in the warm afternoon sunshine and for those with the energy, a splash in the pool! The garden proved the ideal place for everybody to mingle and relax, enjoying the plants, conversation and Dario and his family's warm hospitality. Dario has been adding many plants to his garden and has a great collection, not just of unusual palms, but superb shrubs and trees a number of which carry great fruit. He explained just how wonderful the many citrus trees look in winter, with ripening fruits, the blue sky and the backdrop of Rome, just picture it!

Pride amongst the flowers during our visit though were the Frangipani's, which, being Darin's favourite were grown in pots in many places about the garden. . . . a marvellous scent. lt was a pity to leave but we had arranged that evening to borrow a slide projector and both myself and Martin and Toby, presented two illustrated talks back at the hotel. My own covered the cycads I encountered in South Africa while Martin's and Toby's featured their expedition to South America.

Sunday 1st September...

Eagerly awaited, the morning sunshine saw us head back into central Rome for the famous Botanic Garden. Normally closed at this time of year we were lucky to have arranged a special opening just for us. We were met again by Paola who provided some background to this very long established garden.

A large collection of plants are maintained here, although like so many similar gardens, a little extra funding could go a long way! lt was possible to enjoy the arid garden, home to a good and varied collection of Agave, Yuccas and Dasylirion. Aquatic gardens with pools of Lotus and papyrus, beds of medicinal plants and a glasshouse home to more tropical vegetation. Of course the garden boasts a good collection of palms, including a mature 'leaning' Jubaea. . . more at home in the northern city of Pisa? A huge, snaked-trunked Nannorrhops, over two hundred years old and beginning to form a second head to the main trunk indicating a forthcoming flower spike is the main attraction to the palm garden. Almost certainly this is the largest 'Nanny' in the world, its recumbent main trunk bearing numerous 'scars' of past flowerings.

Here too are tall Trachycarpus, some with clean trunks and neat 'rounded' leaves though not thought to be T. martianus. A number of Brahea grow here also, notable amongst these being a stately B. dulcis, a magical species with perfect leaves and stunning colouration. Underused, perhaps because of their spiny nature, Trithrinax also grow here, superbly architectural species.

All in all a lovely garden to visit, a real 'must see'. The afternoon was free, but due to popular demand a coach tour of the city was arranged, with the versatile Dario providing useful commentary. . English and Spanish! Those who wished were able to hop off the coach in the city for further exploration on foot.

Our final day, Monday, and an early start for the long drive down to Naples and the private garden of the university. We arrived mid-morning and were given a tour of the main plant collections. These are arranged by botanical groupings and included primitive conifers, cycads, a brilliant and atmospheric 'sunken' tree fern garden, rock garden for succulents, variegated plants and of course palms! Perhaps the widest selection of specimens here, from more palm families than seen in other gardens. Numerous Chamaedoreas for example.

Very well maintained and with all plants looking healthy, it was certainly a highlight of the trip for me and well worth the long motorway drive to see. Naples itself has a very mild climate and is more humid than Rome. lt owes this to its position on the bay and allows, for example, large clumps of Strelitzia nicolai to form which would otherwise be cut back to the ground by frost elsewhere. Although climatically fortunate, I did not really like the city which appeared in need of a good clean, and if such a thing is possible, it has busier roads than Rome!

Rather damp weather for our return trip to Rome, with a short break on our return to prepare for our farewell meal. A good restaurant near to our hotel had been booked providing a final chance for everybody to reflect upon the great few days we had just enjoyed and the new friends made, all assisted by copious quantities of wine and a potent Italian liqueur! Time also to accept the generous invitation from our Spanish friends to a meeting next year in sunny Spain in early autumn.

The meeting was indeed voted a great success by all who attended, offering friendship, great gardens and a superb city with so much to see. I was certainly disappointed to leave but did so with fond memories, thanks to all who attended... .Arrivederci Roma!

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