Walking in the B.G.s of Rome
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Chamaerops No. 43-44, published online
Left: Nannorrhops with serpentine Trunk.
Right: Trachycarpus takil.
Hidden in the Jewish quarter of Trastevere, on the
foothills of Gianicolo, lie the Botanical Gardens of Rome - a true
treasure for all palm lovers of the warm-temperate world. Officially
begun in 1883, it was actually built on the former historical garden
of Palazzo Corsini dating from 1741, but the garden is even older.
Its ancestry dates back to the Roman Age, making this a unique mix
of the history of mankind and the story of plants.
So, let me be your guide as I take you along the
paths of this urban oasis.
Getting close to the main gate, it can hardly be
imagined what will be found inside, as very little is visible from
the exterior. As soon as you enter, visible to the left, is a wonderful
bed of Dasylirion (acrotrichum, glaucophyllum, longissimum, and
serratifolium).They are very old plants, and with their prostrate
trunks and typical flower stalks, they give the effect of a true
As you follow the path leading to the Palmetum,
a border of large clumps of Chamaerops humilis can be seen on both
sides. Many forms of this highly variable species, like argentea,
bilaminata, microcarpa, macrocarpa, and arborea, are found here,
but strangely not any cerifera. The path ends with two huge Phoenix
dactylifera clumps and then the heart of the garden is visible.
The view from this point is remarkable, with the Fontana del
Tritone, specimens of Butia capitata, Livistona chinensis
and a young Jubaea in the foreground, and an amazing background
of tall Washingtonia robusta and Phoenix canariensis in a spectacular
clump--not a common way of growing this species, but the effect
works very well. Outstanding in all this crowded scenery are two
trunked Sabal palmetto, which seem to create an imaginary gate,
showing the way to walk. You then reach the Sancta Sanctorum
of the whole garden, and as soon as you pass through that, the Dinosaur
Dont be scared, no Jurassic reptile wanders
in the garden; its only the nickname of the Nannorrhops ritchiana!
This famous specimen is unique in the world for its shape and is
a true masterpiece. Said to reach 6 m in habitat, this particular
plant has one snaking trunk reaching almost 12 m, and the whole
clump has a 20 m spread. It would probably make the Guinness Book
of Records. You have to have a good look around to find out where
the plant starts and where it ends. As Nannorrhops belongs to the
Corypheae tribe, the spent inflorescences look just like those of
the Corypha species, only smaller. It is also monocarpic: the inflorescence
rises right out of the centre of the plants crown of leaves
and this crown dies after it has set fruit. But, by an interesting
quirk of nature, the whole plant doesnt die because it forks
before the flowering head and only one head will flower at a time.
The others will continue to grow and fork again, thus repeating
the process. So, as time goes on, many flower stalk scars are visible
along the main trunks. This plant produces a vivid orange fruit
with very sweet pulp (Ive tried it!), which is much appreciated
in its native country.
Just behind, partially hidden by Nannorrhops foliage, there is a
large Rhapidophyllum clump. It looks beautiful because it grows
in partial shade and thus the leaves are a very attractive deep
green. The first plants I ever saw of this species grew in full
sun and did not look good, with a washed out green color and short
petioles. I thought I would never bother growing this palm, but
seeing this one changed my mind.
Its now time to meet another VIP (Very Important
Palm!) of the garden. Like an old king surrounded by his guards,
the lonely Trachycarpus takil raises its crown several meters over
the many T. fortunei around it. This is the only known specimen
in cultivation and was apparently brought here by Professor Beccari
at the end of the 1800s. It is left with all its dead leaves
on, in a very natural fashion, as the staff of the B.G. want it
this way. Sadly, the King is on the decline, so last year I donated
a young plant to replace it one day.
Nearby are also Trachycarpus martianus and wagnerianus,
Trithrinax acanthocoma, Sabal uresana, and Sabal princeps. The last
is a highly ornamental species and its wide and strongly costapalmate
leaves are remarkable. Still close to this crowded area is a small,
natural cave with a seasonal spring of water. A pleasant planting
of ferns has been created in a corner here, including two Cyathea,
making the best of the natural moisture present.
There are still other jewels that will catch your
attention. There are two Brahea dulcis, visible in both the green
and blue clumping forms. Since my first visit, the blue one has
fascinated me and I cant go there without examining this plant
for a while. Frustratingly, this plant flowers every year but has
never set viable seeds. Brahea edulis is also grown, with some old
specimens present, as well as some young Syagrus romanzoffiana,
Livistona saribus and L. australis currently on trial. A young Phoenix
atlantica is also present, but taxonomists have yet
to agree on the validity of this species.
Going towards the back, which is a higher area,
you will see another giant: a Brahea armata, growing in a bed with
short perennials, looking like an Egyptian obelisk. It is claimed
to be the tallest in Europe, maybe 15 m or more, and its long horsetail-shaped
seeds wave in the slightest breeze.
Its only from this point that you finally
see the huge, fat Jubaea chilensis, partially hidden by other plants.
It has a curious bent trunk for about 2 m, then it straightens.
Maybe when young it was shaded by other plants, but like a slow
turtle, step by step, the Jubaea has reached towards the sky.
The B.G.s of Rome are not solely palms, of
course. Many other remarkable specimens of several families are
present, including large clumps of Cycas revoluta with a forked
male plant; three Nolina longifolia with their corky trunks; an
unusually huge Yucca carnerosana; rare conifers like Agathis, Podocarpus,
Torreya, Araucaria and many other old trees; groves of bamboo such
as Phyllostachis, Arundinaria, Bambusa and Pleioblastus; as well
as a succulent bed, a small pond, and arid and tropical greenhouses.
Theres enough variety for all tastes.
Surely it is worth spending half a day there if
you ever go to Rome. You will not be disappointed.
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