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History of La Mortola

LA MORTOLA - Courtesy of Mediterranean Garden society

by Joanna Millar

The Hanbury Botanic Gardens at La Mortola on the Italian Riviera, about two kilometres from the French border, have been described as a ‘dream garden’. La Mortola was a dream conceived and executed by Thomas Hanbury, a successful tea broker and businessman in the Far East. He had always envisaged returning to Europe and creating a garden on his retirement, and it was while on leave from Shanghai in 1867 and staying at Menton that he saw, from a boat, the dramatic south-facing promontory of La Mortola, on which stood the old palazzo of the Genovese Orengos.

He immediately made enquiries and by the autumn of that year not only was the property his, but he was already designing and planting with the aid of his older brother Daniel, a renowned botanist and pharmacologist. The land he had acquired covered about 112 acres, with a drop of nearly 300 feet to the dazzling Mediterranean below. Although the palazzo had stood there for over 300 years, no garden of importance existed. There were a few terraces, a few shabby staircases – and clumps of wild myrtle from which the property must have derived its name: mirto or mortella being the Italian for myrtle.

The garden flourished and soon plants were being sent, or collected by the Hanburys themselves, from the four corners of the earth. These included great collections of cacti and agaves from South Africa, Australia and South America, with a strong emphasis on medicinal species which reflected Daniel Hanbury’s knowledge of and interest in pharmacology. Notable scientists such as Gustav Cronemayer, Kurt Dinter and Alwin Berger contributed to the development of the garden. The first plant catalogue drawn up in 1889 listed 3,500 species; this total had reached 5,800 species when the third catalogue was issued in 1912.

The Hanburys were ‘Lords of the Manor’, if one can so describe them, and general benefactors. Thomas Hanbury founded the local school, and practically the entire population of the village depended on either the house or the garden for their livelihood. In 1892 he founded the Botanical Institute at the University of Genoa which bears his name, and organised the publication of two books on the natural history of the Riviera: Riviera Nature Notes by Comerford-Casey and Rambles on the Riviera by Strasburger.

In 1903 he presented to the Royal Horticultural Society the original 60 acres of land on which Wisley, the Society’s display, experimental and teaching garden, was established.

Sir Thomas, as he had now become, died in 1907 and a period of stagnation ensued when the garden was run by a series of curators – until 1920 when his son Cecil, with his dynamic wife Dorothy, came to live at La Mortola and to direct the house and garden. They were aided by her brother, Bertram Symons-Jeune, a landscape gardener.

The property had suffered from the effects of the First World War and the young Hanburys set about restoring the house and gardens to their former glory. They made many improvements and new plantings, and the garden became as celebrated as it had been in its earlier days. At the height of this renewed activity it boasted 7000 different species of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. It was under their care that the long entrance avenue of cypresses was planted, the long curving wisteria-clad staircase was constructed sheltering a pool with its legendary Japanese dragon from Kyoto, and the elegant little temple with its ironwork cupola was created.

 

At the outbreak of the Second World War the Hanburys departed for England and the property was once again plunged into ruin. The gardens and village were the scene of much fighting, as the scarred façades of some of the houses still bear witness to this day. It was also here, in 1941, that Mussolini and Franco had a secret meeting.

With the return of peace back came the Hanburys, and it was due to Lady Dorothy’s vigour that the garden was restored once more to something like its previous condition. But life had changed. It was no longer easy to find staff, and in 1960 Mrs. Hanbury-Forbes (as she had become on remarrying after her husband’s death) sold the garden to the Italian State with the warranty of possession in perpetuity. For some years the garden was managed by the International Institute of Ligurian Studies, but recovery was hampered by lack of funds. Things fell into a state of disrepair, paths were unweeded, plants died, and there was even talk of the whole site being turned into a building plot. The Institute had to withdraw in 1983.

But help came from the International Dendrology Society, later joined by the Royal Horticultural Society, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and various Italian organisations. A vital role was played by the late Mr. Richard Norman, a renowned gardener and plantsman. As a result, a group of British and Italian horticulturalists, botanists and conservationists joined together to form the ‘Amici dei Giardini Botanici Hanbury’ (Friends of the Hanbury Botanical Gardens) under the presidentship of Signor Gian Lupo Osti, and finally in 1987 the University of Genoa shouldered responsibility for the garden.

There is now a real feel of excitement and advancement. Students are being trained, plants are being clearly labelled, new projects are being developed and the gardens are once more taking their place among the great and famous botanical gardens of the world.

 

Some of the original planting still exists: the Casimiroa edulis of 1867, Pinus canariensis of 1870 and the Araucaria cunninghamii of 1872, all planted or sown by Daniel Hanbury, as well as the 300-feet-long pergola, reputed to be the longest in Europe, covered with various members of the Bignoniaceae family: Pandorea, Pyrostegia, Campsis, Phaedranthus [now Amphilophium], Jacaranda, Tecoma, Bignonia [now Podranea] andMacfadyena [now Dolichandra]. You can see the large citrus grove which Thomas Hanbury and his brother planted in the lower reaches of the garden, with specimens of lemons, oranges and the ‘shaddock’ grapefruit, each one of which may weigh up to 3lbs.

There are special areas of interest: the succulent garden wherein grow all manner of agaves, aloes and yuccas; and the ‘Foresta Australiana’ which, as the name implies, is planted with trees and shrubs from Australasia: Eucalyptus, Callistemon, Melaleuca, Acacia and Brachychiton. The ‘Viale delle Cicadee’ has both male and female cycads – the food, so we are told, of the dinosaurs. It was supposed to take them two days to digest those tough, horny leaves – which perhaps accounts for the fact that they are extinct today. There are roses in profusion tumbling out of trees, climbing over pergolas or growing in borders: Rosa laevigata, white and yellow Banksia roses, ‘Mermaid’, ‘Félicité et Perpétue’, ‘Noelle Nabonnand’ (the Nabonnands were famous rose growers from Antibes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). There are new plantings of modern roses by Meilland of France and David Austin of England and, of course, the single white-flowered ‘La Mortola’ itself, with its beautiful grey-green pointed leaves.

Other plants of note are: Sorbus domestica, Cheirostemon platanoides [now Chiranthodendron pentadactylon] (from Guatemala), Pittosporum undulatum, Senecio petasites [now Roldana petasitis], Entelea arborescens (from New Zealand – its wood is lighter than cork), Musa sapientum [now Musa × paradisiacal], Strelitzia alba, Agave franzosini, Puya spathacea, Dasylirion serratifolium, Aloe mitriformis [now A. perfoliata], Encephalartus altensteinii, Acacia abyssinica, Koelreuteria integrifoliola [now K. bipinnata], Diospyros kaki, Passiflora mixta, Salvia gesneriifloia, Salvia interrupta, Campsis × tagliabuana, Lobelia laxiflora, and an unusual tree convolvulus – Convolvulus floridus (from the Canary Islands).

Half-way down, the garden is bisected from east to west by the Via Aurelia, one of the four main roads leading from Rome, along which passed such famous people as Catherine of Siena, Machiavelli, several popes, Charles V, and Napoleon en route to one of his campaigns.

A part of the garden which has recently been restored and reopened, much to my own pleasure, is the well-labelled herb garden. And then there is the truly delightful ‘Giardino dei Profumi’ with species of salvia, geranium, lavender, a glorious Beaumontia, and roses cascading over the old walls – not to be missed.

For those who wish it there are charming and well-informed guides who can lead you through this wonderland to its foot, where you can take light refreshments to prepare you for the long haul back.

****

The author and editors would like to thank Dott. Gian Lupo Osti for his assistance in preparing this article, and the Amici dei Giardini Botanici Hanbury for the loan of photographs from their archives. If you are interested in supporting the work of the Hanbury Botanical Gardens and enjoying the benefits of membership of this association, please write for further information to:

Amici dei Giardini Botanici Hanbury, Corso Montecarlo 13 bis
18030 La Mortola (IM)
Italy.

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