Orto Botanico – a stroll through Botanical Gardens past and present: Julia Grigg’s Morrab Miscellany

Recalling a visit to the Orto Botanico in Florence, Julia looks at the history of botanical gardens, and learns of their new role in combatting the many threats to future global food supplies from climate change and disease.

Arriving at O, I’m mining the Italian language, extracting ORTO BOTANICO, words which translate as ‘Botanical Garden.’

It was in C16th Italy that the Botanical Garden originated, created in 1544 by the University of Pisa. By the following year, the city of Florence had followed suit, a 4 acres former orchard site transformed under the patronage of Cosimo, first Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany (1519-74.)

Cosimo, charismatic and discerning, presided over a golden age for Florence, commissioning Giorgio Vasari to design, amongst other things, the Medici offices, the ‘Uffizi’, now home to a huge, pre-eminent collection of Renaissance art

It’s a few years ago and I’m in Florence: a cold January when, like most other visitors, I’ve come to focus on the Uffizi and other galleries of famed paintings, to absorb the architectural and sculptural legacy of the artistic ferment that was the Italian Renaissance.

My primary aim is to learn about the mid-C16th Florentine artistic context. I’m working on a historical novel based on a 1548 painting by Jacopo Bassano. (The Eyes that Look (Unicorn) was published in 2018.)

But I also have an interest in the herbal remedies of the period and that leads me on a short walk from the Duomo to the gravelled paths, topiary and greenhouses of the Orto Botanico. The Garden’s initial purpose was the academic study of exotic plants brought back almost haphazardly by merchant-adventurers from their voyages across uncharted oceans. From these ‘simples’ many new medicinal applications were derived.

Gravelled paths at the Orto Botanico
The Orto Botanico in Florence. Photo: J Spry-Leverton

During the later C16th and in the C17th Botanical Gardens underwent a change of style, with gardens such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid proactively encouraging botanical exploration in the tropics, while also promoting the foundation of new gardens in the tropical regions.

In C19th and C20th many municipal and civic gardens were opened. Like Morrab Gardens, nearly all were for recreation, very few having a scientific programme. Around the world today 1775 botanic gardens and arboreta are to be found in 148 countries. 

As concern has grown over the last 50 years about the disastrous impact of climate change, habitat destruction and pollution on many species ­– species which are disappearing before they can adapt – the role of Botanical Gardens’ has evolved further.

Today’s botanists, increasingly committed to seeking out plants at risk and finding the most viable methods of reproducing and conserving them, are at work in Botanical Gardens that have reoriented themselves as scientific institutions. Their crucial task now is to preserve seeds in a ‘germplasm’ bank of living genetic resources, so that, if necessary, new fertile plants can be created from these specimens for return to habitats where they have been disappearing.

The world’s largest conservation programme is the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB), managed by the Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG) at Kew in London.

A display in the visitor area of the Millennium Seed Bank inspired by seeds of the Turkish hazel, Corylus colurna.
“The Millenium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place.” by tomline43 is licensed with CC BY 2.0

MSB holdings represent a rich biological resource of seeds from 189 countries.  Collected seeds are conserved wherever possible in the country of origin and duplicated for sending to Kew.

Highlighting the very small number of plant species upon which humanity depends for food, the RBG Kew’s State of the World’s Plants and Fungi 2020 Report states that 90 per cent of all calories for human nutrition are derived from just 15 plants. The potential threat to future global food supplies from climate change or new diseases is worryingly evident.

Melanie-Jayne Howes, a research leader at RBG Kew warns, ‘It is absolutely critical we better protect biodiversity so we are better prepared for emerging challenges to our planet and our health.’

Meanwhile, strolling on through central Florence, I’m becoming aware how rare the sight of greenery is within the grid of the city’s dark, tall, granite-block-walled streets. A tantalising glimpse into a gracious courtyard or even just spotting a stone carving of foliage are the sole indications a Florentine appetite for gardens does exist.

But on the other side of the Arno river, in the Oltrarno district, things are different.

For instance, once inside the walls of the Torrigiani Garden, you can wander (by private appointment) past temples and statues and across picturesque bridges in the 17 acres of the largest privately-owned city garden in Europe.

And at the Boboli Gardens Grand Duke Cosimo shows us once again how he was no slouch, carving out a magnificently verdant terraced space for his wife Eleanor of Toledo from 111 acres of steeply sloped land behind his grand Pitti Palace.

Today these Gardens act as Florentines’ veritable ‘green lung’, in the form of an outdoor museum where sculpture including Roman antiquities, C16th and C17th works and a vast stalactite-hung grotto wait to be explored.

Taking in these splendid Oltrarno gardens would be a superb way to spend a Florentine day. Booking a tour with Valentina of www.valentinasflorencetours.com you’d have the benefit of her local knowledge and gardening expertise.

By this time, I’m ready for refreshment – and so, as we part company, I’ll take a seat at Café Rivoire for a cup of its rightly-famed hot chocolate. Here, as I sip, I’ll be under the eye of Grand Duke Cosimo from across the Piazza Signoria, where he’s immortalised in Giambologna’s 1594 bronze statue. Helmeted and in armour, Cosimo’s victorious astride a trotting horse. But his sword is sheathed: clearly a symbolic representation of the protection and patronage he offered the city, ensuring the continuity of its astonishing artistic flourishing.

O for FRANK LAW OLMSTED

In none of the arts as surely as in gardening can a man of moderate poetic temperament…and moderate time for the purpose, produce works of a distinctive character that shall be thoroughly respectable.

Visiting the north of England in 1850, American farmer Olmsted (1822-1903) admired the natural lay-out of Birkenhead’s public park and how it was equally accessible to all citizens regardless of their status. Eight years later Olmsted won a competition to design Central Park in Manhattan, starting him on a career as an influential landscape architect and conservationist. Olmsted’s designs, pastoral and picturesque in style, featuring green slopes and dramatic planted rockeries, were popular and highly praised. ‘He paints with lakes and wooded slopes, with lawns and banks and forest-covered hills,’ wrote an architect colleague.

JUST PUBLISHED: Immersion by Nola Anderson (Damiani 2021) describes the author’s rescuing and revivifying over the last 30 year of an Olmsted garden created in 1902 in Boston, USA. Lavishly illustrated with photographs, the book includes copies of the designer’s ORIGINAL plans.

Read more of Julia Grigg’s Morrab Miscellany

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