Tag Archives: botanic garden

The Perfect Imperfect Garden

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A little lost, trying to find the place in Pisa I’m staying, I come across the Orto Botanico by accident – a tantalizing glimpse through statuesque iron gates. The back entrance is locked but here, now in the heart of this dusty terracotta, lemon and grey city I can see green spilling everywhere – ginkgo, oak, plane, palm – and people walking around clutching plans, looking back and forth between paper and tree. The information I’d read had said the garden was closed on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. This, like many other things, proves to be wrong.

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Every day they let me in for free and I walk through the shady lodge into a dazzle of sunlight. The first view, the central square – Piazza Arcangeli – is a carefully composed picture of glaring white gravel, an ivy fringed pond, with a semi-circle of oddly tame purple and yellow pansies, and two monumental Chilean wine palms, planted in the 19th century when the grand building that houses the University’s School of Biology was also built. The sweet scent of jasmine permeates the air and acts like a spell. Now you are entering Garden Time – things happen differently here.


To my left, south, is the oldest part of the garden, established here in 1591, having moved from two earlier sites in the city since it was founded in 1543. The first surviving design dates from 1723 and this is more or less as it stands today, with just a few changes. A dense mood of continuity and tradition hangs over everything – comforting and stultifying.

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In the Myrtle Garden medicinal plants are arranged in ceramic pots on stone staging like guests at the theatre – guests who’ve forgotten to wear their best clothes. The rosemary and sage need no special attention: they would grow wild given half the chance. Many of the others are thirsty, sulking, distracted by weeds. I enjoy the big old myrtle though, remembering my midwife back in the early ’80s when I gave birth to my sons at home – brisk, no-nonsense, with a heart of gold. How does a girl born in the chilly North Tyne valley on the cusp of the twentieth century end up being called Myrtle? I invent an Italian honeymoon for her parents – wish them an unlocked garden, the fragrance of jasmine, the excitement of sparrows and the sinuous darting of lizards.

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In the Cedar Garden the original cedar is missing – as is the heart of the oldest magnolia in Tuscany, braced by three iron props, thick glossy leaves burgeoning anyway – venerable, perfectly imperfect. Who says a heart needs to be visible to stay strong?

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I see my first ever flower on a tulip tree, eat my first loquat, plucked from a just-in-reach branch – sharp and juicy – and find a maroon blossom also new to me. The petals look and feel as if they are made of flocked card, curled up in the heat of the sun. The label tells me it is Calycanthus floridus, a native of North America.

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The far end of this part of the garden is marked by the extraordinary ‘grotesque’ façade of what is now the Botanical Museum. The site of the old entrance on Via Santa Maria, it was decorated to celebrate the dynastic marriage between a Medici and a Lorraine in 1752. Next to it, the traditional ochre-coloured stucco is fading and peeling. Dark green shutters keep out the powerful sun. Climbing pink roses spike the eye. All these colours shouldn’t go together, but they do – Italian style so often brash, extravagant, excessive.

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To the north of the School of Biology lies the Orto Nuovo and the Arboretum – a less formal planting of many varieties of trees and a massive stand of bamboo in a landscape more like a park than a botanical garden. There is a small pool with waterlilies, fish and turtles. Students sit around it to work, eat, flirt – often all three at once: pleasure such a necessary thread in the texture of any Italian day or night. There’s a low hill from which you can see the top of the Leaning Tower up on the Field of Miracles and the dome of the Cathedral, pleated like a giant seedhead against the backdrop of the sky.

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Time passes. What is a week might be a month. I am bitten on the ankles by mosquitoes. I take photographs of beetles, striped red and black like the coats of arms of Italian aristocrats. I drink cool pear juice from the vending machine. Roberta shows me the wooden doors from the old entrance – carved panels of Aloe, Belladonna, Verbascum and Crown Imperial (the garden’s emblem). Tree surgeons work very slowly, lopping off the topmost branches of the oldest highest trees, stacking great mounds of wood beneath them. I make friends with the garden cat, ginger and white and luxuriant. I feel honoured, special, until the next day I see him languishing, faithless, alongside a young student under the red chestnut tree.

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A Swedish visitor asks me if I know why the garden is so neglected, why the students aren’t set to weeding. Two days later I see a small group of girls hoeing and hooking up weeds in a corner of the Myrtle Garden. I find the strangest, largest wisteria ever – root and stem rearing like a dragon to climb the nearby trees. I discover the name Hortense comes from the Italian for hydrangea. The new glasshouses are three years behind schedule and several species of plants have died waiting. I sit beneath a eucalyptus, calmed by its familiar reassuring smell, the little moons of its fallen leaves. My skin turns pink and freckled. I think about history, my own and the garden’s. I press leaves and flowers between the pages of my notebook.

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Before coming home I spend 24 hours in Florence for an Italian poet friend’s book launch. Too short a time for so bountiful a city. Long enough to climb the hill to Piazzale Michelangelo and see the Garden of the Roses and the Iris Garden, home of the Florentine ‘lily’ (giglio). From here, there is a sweeping view of the Arno, the same river that runs through Pisa, and the whole of the city, buildings packed so close together, not much changed since the time of the Medicis and the Renaissance.

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I sit with a lump in my throat beside the Duomo – Our Lady of the Flowers – a church built from so many different marbles, perfectly arranged, like some sublime garden, with such care and skill and devotion. Behind me a French tourist spills his ice-cream and his wife mops him up with a tissue from her bag soaked in perfume. ‘Now I smell like a woman!’ he says laughing. I get up to leave, taking the scent of jasmine and violets with me.

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Taxonomy Is Not Just Stamp Collecting

When I was in Singapore at the end of January I had the pleasure of meeting Sue Hick, a fellow plant-lover and Northumbrian, for a walk round the Botanic Gardens and tea in the lovely Halia restaurant in the Ginger Garden.  She divides her time between Allendale and Singapore and works as a volunteer in the Singapore Herbarium.  As part of a series of guest posts, I asked Sue if she would write a piece about her work there.  I’m delighted to include it here, with some pictures from my own tour of it.


Taxonomy is not just stamp collecting. Whether you’re talking about answering basic problems in evolution or practical questions on climate change, you can’t begin unless you know what’s there.

Lord May of Oxford, FLS (2003)

This quote sums up the work and importance of a herbarium. The Singapore Herbarium, where I work as a volunteer, is a reference library of all the plants in the region, covering the greater part of SE Asia.  There are specimens collected from all over the area and this is only a small fraction of the regions flora – some have yet to be discovered and some are already extinct.

I have worked there on and off for almost two years. My job is the lowest – I liken the work to a filing clerk in an old fashioned office – I check the dried plant specimens for damage, and then check the label for accuracy and finally re-file it. The herbarium is a quiet, peaceful place, air-conditioned and cool, a refuge from the busy city outside.

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New samples are constantly being collected from the field, pressed, fumigated and mounted on card before filing. Sometimes requests for samples come from researchers in other herbariums; some go to Kew Gardens for inclusion in their massive Herbarium.

Many of the older specimens are brittle and insect-eaten but every piece is kept – it has historical value if nothing else. Sometimes they can be repaired and remounted. The label is vital – a specimen is useless without knowing where it grew and in SE Asia countries change name and boundaries shift with time, e.g. many countries have new names since colonial times and it is even harder to pinpoint a plant collected on mountain ‘A ‘ if you have no knowledge of the country. I work with an atlas at my right hand – the last time I studied geography was in high school too many years ago!

Working there we see many researchers from all over the world who come to study the specimens. It is interesting talking to them as they discover new species or lament the absence of others. There is a sense of history as I find specimens collected by the old plant hunters from years ago – missionaries or colonial officers, or even ones collected by Ridley – Director of the Herbarium from 1888 to 1911 and who introduced the rubber tree to Malaya, which helped to make it a rich and prosperous colony of the British Empire.  I have worked at his desk and felt he would be proud of his followers who work there now.

Sue Hick                                                                                                                                  

February 2013

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All the gardens I’m going to take you to have gates, walls, railings or fences.  It is very clear you are either outside the garden or inside the garden.  To cross the threshold you must buy a ticket or have a key or know the secret number.  Entering one of these gardens will always cost you something – a rite of passage, a station of the cross, a mystery your body must recognize, like the pattern of sleeping and waking, the dreams that happen in between.

But when does it begin, this admission, this entering?  Like eating a meal, reading a book, making love, where does anything start?  When the intention gathers in your mind?  When you make a choice?

Now, you read the address and look it up on the map.  You start imagining your way there, your arrival and what wonders are waiting for you to discover.  All these are beginnings, initiations, part of your experience of a garden.  It starts inside you and when you’re there, your attention moves outside, until you leave and it becomes part of you and goes back inside.  Interior, exterior.  The process is circular like breathing.  Inhale, exhale.  Like eating, reading or making love, visiting a garden is an act of exchange, intimate, atavistic, therapeutic.

A Botanic Garden, as well as being a consolation inspires in other ways.  You will be extended by it, always taking more back into the world than you brought with you.  Your mind and your body will know more about itself.  They will have learned something about healing what needs to be healed and saving what needs to be saved.  You will carry the seeds of change inside you and not fear them.

The gate may close behind you with what sounds like finality, but you will take all the plants home inside you and when you speak of their beauty, your breath will blossom with their scent, their clever way with channeling light.  So, you see, you have no choice but to come and go, imagine, visit.  Enter.

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