Padua, September 1786. During his “grand tour” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stays in the city of the Saint and visiting the botanical garden he is amazed in front of a specimen of Chamaerops humilis, the dwarf palm or St. Peter’s palm. Planted in 1585, it is now known as the “Goethe palm”, because it suggested to the writer the intuition, formulated in the essay “The metamorphosis of plants” (1790), that there could be an original plant of which all existing plants would be expression.
After more than two centuries, the writer and journalist Alessandra Viola (author of “Flower Power” and Ambassador of Nature 2019) and the botanist and agronomist Manlio Speciale (curator of the Botanical Garden of the University of Palermo), with the volume ” Going to botanical gardens “(Il Mulino, pp. 148, 12 euros), they propose their” journey to Italy “to discover 16 academic botanical gardens (ie direct emanation of a university or in any case born in support of an institution academic). From the oldest, which date back to the mid-fifteenth century (Padua dates back to 1545, and is the only one to have never changed its headquarters since its foundation, while Pisa is two years earlier but was later transferred to another site), then Turin, Bologna , Florence, Rome, Naples and Palermo, with some forays to Milan, Siena, Ferrara, Pavia, Genoa, Viterbo, Urbino and the botanical garden of the Marche.
Botanical gardens, like herbaria, are born with a specific function, that is, “Plant, dispose, and keep them simple”. Medicinal gardens where medicine and pharmacy students learned to recognize and use plants (simplicia were the plants used as basic medicines), without having to go and look for them in nature in inaccessible or remote areas. But it is between 1700 and 1800, parallel to the great explorations, that the botanical gardens reach their maximum prestige also becoming Wunderkammer, chambers of botanical wonders, collection of oddities and curiosities, exhibition places of rare plants of distant lands. And so the Garden of the Simple is transformed into an exotic garden and a museum.
“Today a botanical garden can be defined as a garden of public utility in which plants are kept for research purposes, for applied teaching and for the dissemination of botanical sciences – write the authors – They are museums in permanent activity, lively, structured and sorted into collections, with multiple functions including of a social nature “. Places of study, scientific dissemination and acclimatization of exotic and indigenous plants to analyze their characteristics and adaptations to climate change, bulwarks of plant biodiversity, but also gardens of seductive yet delicate beauty, locations for cultural and recreational activities. Green open-air museums, to be visited with all the senses, observing, smelling and tasting, but above all respecting what is a cultural and environmental heritage of our country.
“The botanical gardens have a complex nature, here men and plants try to enter into relationship – explains Manlio Speciale – they are not a tourist site or a municipal park, they are not historical gardens in the strict sense, born for amusement, to talk, to philosophize. , flirt, play and chase each other. They are places of study, research and teaching, where plants in a rarefied atmosphere are cataloged in a strictly scientific way, trying to give a definition to these incredible creatures of the plant world, which in certain phases of their life are extremely expressive with their their blooms, fruiting, foliation and defoliation. Here it is not a landscape architect who has studied combinations for ornamental purposes, and if the botanical gardens became just an exhibition of beautiful plants they would betray their nature. But they are magical places, a magic that has to do with botanical science and at the same time with beauty. To be attended on tiptoe, so as not to disturb the delicate balance, also trying to intrigue visitors and bring them closer to botany, counteracting the phenomenon of “plant blindness” for which those who live in the city do not see plants even when they do. front”.
Walking through the avenues of the botanical gardens is like walking through an open botany book, to use the words of Libereso Guglielmi, the gardener of Mario Calvino, who thus defined the botanical garden of the University of Palermo, inaugurated in 1795 near Villa Giulia (the Royal Academy of Studies was born in 1779 with the establishment of the chair of Botany and natural history, then becoming the Royal University in 1805), which today in its more than ten hectares houses various specimens of plants of thousands of species, with a strong tropical and subtropical component. “A scientifically flawless garden, yet in dialogue with the whole world – as Manlio Speciale presents it – there is no corner in which plants do not observe a scientific criterion, grouped according to systematic orders (Linnaeus or Engler), or divided into sectors thematic, phytogeographic, taxonomic or bioecological “.
The most famous tree is certainly the gigantic Ficus macrophylla f. columnaris, an authentic cathedral of trunks and tangled roots, which seem to stretch in the air in search of humid places, which leaves visitors in disbelief already bewitched by the towering Araucaria columnaris, which with its 40 meters is the tallest tree in the city.
The oldest portion of the Garden, designed by the French architect Léon Dufourny in full enlightenment jubilation, is called the “Linnaeus System”, because the friar Bernardino da Ucria wanted to organize the four large “quarters”, arranging the plants in small rectangular flower beds , called “ortuli”, according to the classification of the great Swedish naturalist.
Magnificent is the Aquarium, which in three concentric basins with 24 compartments houses the collection of water lilies with pink, red, yellow and blue blooms, the Indian lotus flower (Nelumbo nucifera), the Euryale ferox, huge thorny water lily, the spectacular Victoria of the Amazon, the expressive Hibiscus palustris and neighbor, the South African Aponogeton distachyos (water hawthorn).
Not far away is the pond with the Egyptian papyrus (Cyperus papyrus), the superb marsh iris (Iris pseudoacorus), and still not far away the giant Alocasias, three magnificent specimens of Pandanus furcatus, a thick scrub of Woodwardia unigemmata, an evergreen fern of Asian origin, and the bamboo grove with the gigantic Dendrocalamus asper.
If it is not surprising to find here the Dracaena draco, the dragon tree of the Canary Islands, it is quite another thing to see how perfectly another dragon has adapted to the Sicilian climate, the very rare one from the Yemeni island of Socotra, the mythical “dragon’s blood “Or cinnabar” of the incense route “(Dracaena cinnabari).
The Palmetum houses an important collection of about 150 specimens, with many species coming from tropical Asia, Central and South America, Africa or Madagascar, such as Bismarckia nobilis, Ravanea rivularis and Dypsis decaryi. The Roystonea regia or royal palm of Cuba, the Serenoa repens of Florida, the Wallichia densiflora of the Himalayas, the Livistona chinensis, the Californian Washingtonia filifera and the rare Sabal causiarum of Haiti and Puerto Rico thrive. In the avenue known as the chorisie or false kapok, there is the exaggerated Ceiba speciosa, a South American plant similar to the baobab, with a thorny and swollen trunk like a barrel; when it bears fruit it produces fruits as large as pears, which open up and release a kind of soft and silky cotton. The collection of cycads, ancestral plants dating back to the time of dinosaurs, such as Cycas revoluta, of Japanese origin, donated by Queen Maria Carolina in 1793, the first specimen of this species placed in the open ground in Europe, is the envy of all of Europe, or the elegant Cycas circinalis from the Indian peninsula. While walking we also meet a Melaleuca over 200 years old, a Carica quercifolia, the Welwitschia mirabilis, an ancient gymnosperm of the South African desert, the strophanthus (Strophantanthusaspens) and the psychic Mimosa spegazzinii. Finally, in the most recent part of the Botanical Garden, in addition to the interesting simple garden with medicinal and alimurgical plants, there is the newborn Arboreto delle Xerofite, a small grove with mostly South American plants, which live in arid environments, with genera such as Prosopis , Acacia, Mimosa, Geoffroea and rare species including the Mexican Caesalpinia cacalaco.