Tuscany Lemon Gardens
I was born in Siena, in a house just outside the historic city centre, with a big garden. I was used to seeing terracotta vases with lemon plants. They were part of the house, I never asked where they came from, nor did I notice that, in winter, they disappeared from the garden, into the safety of the Limonaie (lemon green houses). Lemons were part of my daily life, together with the rolling hills, cypress trees and sunflowers – the symbols of Tuscany. I took them for granted.
Then, I left to go far away. Flying over the oceans, I reached the US, where I realised that my homeland was seen differently. My first house there was in Galveston Island, Texas. Torrid, humid weather in November, and tropical sunsets,pink flamingos and cowboy hats.
Tuscany was very far. Siena, unknown.
Moving houses, and new States brought me closer – at least mentally – to my home. But everywhere, Italy remained perceived through simple stereotypes of food, wine and the classic symbols.
Sunflowers and Tuscany, Lemons and the Amalfi coast, Oranges and the beautiful Sicily, Bergamot cultivations and Calabria… but for me, Tuscany, is associated to Lemons.
As a matter of fact, I could suggest a walk through the Villa Corsini gardens, where the “Artigiano&Palazzo” meetings are held, or in the beautiful Villa Medicea di Castello, once the home of both Botticelli’s Venere and Primavera and today home of the famous Accademia della Crusca. Numerous historic villas in the Senese area have gardens full of elegant lemon plants, like one of my favourite: Villa Catignano where you can find yourself surrounded by their unique, singular scent.
The colourful citrus fruits originate far away, and their story is very old. We have to go back around 400 years, and travel to China, to find the first plants.
In the Citrus fruit family, we can find the popular Lemons, Mandarins (Mandarini), Grapefruits (Pompelmi) and Oranges (Arance) , together with the less common Citron (Cedro) ,the vintage Chinotto, the elegant Bergamot (Bergamotto), and the exotic Lime, which in Italian is called Limetta.
Not to mention the numerous varieties obtained by the Medici with unusual combinations called Bizzarrie – the strange things- due to their amazing shapes!
The story of citrus fruits as ornamental garden plants is a piece of Renaissance history worth exploring.
Elegant villas, gardens and terracotta vases with splendid ornamental plants; citrus fruit cultivations in Tuscany have been closely related to the Medici family, who loved adorning their Villas’ gardens with bitter oranges and lemons, together with more rare varieties, exporting them all over Europe.
It was in particular, Cosimo III – Granduca di Toscana, in the XVII Century, the one responsible for thepresence of citrus plants in Tuscany. The painter Bartolomeo Bimbi, known almost exclusively for his work on vegetables and fruits, was commissioned by the Medici to paint their botanical collection, particularly rich in citrus varieties. His work is currently held in various Florentine galleries and museums, and in the ‘Museo della Natura Morta” which occupies an entire wing of the Medici villa in Poggio a Caiano.
There was not one Tuscan villa which did not have an Orangerie, called Limonaia, specifically designed to shelter from the cold winters, lemon and citrus plants- such as those found in the Florentine Boboli gardens, which were grown here towards the end of the XVI century.
Villa di Castello
The Limonaia of the Medici Villa di Castello, is particularly interesting in Florence, and today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. An important collection of rare lemons and citrus fruits plants can be found in the historic garden which, in winter, finds shelter in the villa’s two Limonaie; one small and one large, also known as the ‘stanzone degli agrumi “- big room of citrus fruits’, where the more ancient plants can be found.
Given the delicacy of the plants, the recovery process which takes place in winter requires a month’s work. The garden is of great historical and botanical significance because of its plant collection, commissioned by Cosimo dei Medici, at the end of the XVII century.
During WWI, the Castello’s Limonaie were emptied and transformed into a military hospital. The precious citrus fruits suffered the cold winter, and many of the plants still show the signs of the damage today.
A tour of the garden in Villa di Castello, is a true renaissance walk , surrounded by a perfect harmony. In 1585, Agostino del Riccio, author of “trattati di storia naturale”, described the presence of 11 varieties of rare citrus fruits. Amongst these, the Pummelo, Citrus Maxima, originating from Palermo; the fruit being so sweet it could be eaten like an apple.
Among the numerous citrus plants in the large terracotta vases, it is interesting to know that during the ‘80s, the manager of the Villa di Castello’s gardens, came across a species which was thought to be extinct; Citrus Aurantium o Bizzarria. It appears to be a highly rare species, a sort of concentrate between three varieties of the same fruit; citron, orange and lemon, obtained by Cosimo III.
The peel of the fruit shows strange “bloatings” , as if hiding something below (many have said it appears as if small hands are drawn underneath the thick skin).
At the time, citrus fruits were appreciated for their medicinal properties and ornamental value, and essential oils and perfumes were often created. To find out more, and for cosmetic recipes to follow, you can read one of the articles in the Tuscany Fragrant Pharmacy.
Walking among the Lemons – Hesperidarium
Aside from the Boboli gardens and the Villa di Castello, another fantastic destination for a walk is the Castellare di Pescia, Pistoia. Here, the botanical garden, Hesperidarium, contains over 200 varieties of ornamental citrus fruits from all over the world. From the Medici cultivations dating back from the 1500s, to cultivations from Orient, all the way to new modern varieties.
A series of small streets and tunnels make this walk feasible in winter as well. The garden, unique in its genre, is accessible for everyone and includes fountains and figures inspired by the Pinocchio fairytale – Indeed, 2km away is the Parco di Collodi, dedicated to Pinocchio… An ideal way to satisfy all the family in one day!
I hope I gave you some alternative ideas to visit my beloved region. A splash of fragrant yellow : it may be another way you can remember Tuscany! ( Most of the photos in the article are from Villa Catignano, Siena)