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Subtropical Lake District

Jim Reynolds, Vancouver, B. C., Canada
Chamaerops No.47 - published online 25-06-2003

- Left: A massive, more than one hundred year old Jubaea chilensis at the Villa Charlotta, Lago Maggiore.
- Middle: Jubaea chilensis on the Isola Madre, Lago Maggiore. Butia and Brahea in foreground.
- Right: The beautiful garden on the Isole di Brissago, Lago Maggiore, with Musa basjoo, Brahea armata and two large Phoenix canariensis from left to right.
Photos: Gerard Pury

I was very fortunate to be able to spend a couple of days this August in the Lake Lugano/Lake Maggiore areas of the Swiss/Italian lake district. These areas have abundant subtropical vegetation and show what can be achieved by generations of careful landscaping.

Lake Lugano is a lake in southern Switzerland and northern Italy at the southern foot of the Alps. It is surrounded by mountains and hills which protect it from the cold climate that dominates most of Switzerland. The area of the lake is about 49 square kilometers or 19 square miles. The town of Lugano is located on the northern shore of the lake in the Swiss canton of Ticino. The influence of Italian culture is evident and Italian is the local language. The population is only about 30,000 but it is Switzerland's third largest banking centre and many of the bankers and their customers come from Italy. The town is pretty with many narrow streets lined with shops selling Swiss watches and other merchandise. The major attraction for me was the constant presence of subtropical vegetation and especially hundreds of mature Windmill Palms. I have never seen so many. They are literally in every vista - in the town, along the lake and in the surrounding farming areas. There are also many examples of yucca, cordyline, Musa basjoo and canna. It is very difficult to believe that one is in Switzerland and not in some part of the tropics.

Lake Maggiore is located to the west of Lake Lugano and is much larger. It too lies between Switzerland and Italy. It is the second largest lake in Italy and is about 64 kilometers long and 212 square kilometers or 82 square miles in area. I visited the old town of Stresa on the western shore of the lake. You can take a ferry from there to the Boromean archipelago consisting of three main islands: Isla Bella, Isla Madre and Isla Pescatoria. These islands have been in the possession of the Borromea family of Milan since the Italian Renaissance. Saint Charles Borromea, a member of the family, was appointed cardinal and archbishop of Milan in 1560. The family still lives at the Palazzo Borromea, which dominates Isla Bella for part of the year, but it is now open to tourists. The palace was built in the seventeenth century in the Baroque style and has very impressive architecture and a large collection of paintings and antiques. Again, I was most impressed by the formal Italian gardens. There are ten formal terraces that tier down to the level of the lake. The long hedges of yew and cypress enclose the gardens with their obelisks, statues, and cascading fountains and vistas of the lake. The vegetation is Mediterranean or subtropical with palms, cordylines, canna, gunnera, taro and some bananas. An even more impressive collection of luxuriant plants is to be found in the botanical gardens on the neighbouring island of Isla Madre.

My only regret is that there was not enough time to visit the nearby Villa Taranta which has an outstanding garden created in 1931 with plants from around the world. Like the gardens on the Borromean islands, it attracts garden enthusiasts from around the world. That must wait for another time.


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