Walking in the B.G.’s of Rome

by Anonymus
Chamaerops No. 43-44, published online 05-08-2002

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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 natural stand.

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’ appears...

Don’t be scared, no Jurassic reptile wanders in the garden; it’s 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 plant’s crown of leaves and this crown dies after it has set fruit. But, by an interesting quirk of nature, the whole plant doesn’t 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 (I’ve 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.

It’s 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 1800’s. 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 can’t 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.

It’s 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. There’s 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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