Botanical Gardens in Sicily
Botanical gardens are places dedicated to preserve biodiversity. Here you can learn something about environmental protection and about the plant kingdom while being completely surrounded by the beauty of nature. In Sicily there are four officially recognised botanical gardens: are you ready to discover them?
We start our tour from eastern Sicily, in Ragalna, a small town south of Mount Etna Park, in the province of Catania. Here we find the Nuova Gussonea Botanical Garden, which extends over 10 hectares at an altitude of 1700 m above sea level. Its name pays tribute to two Italian botanists, Giovanni Gussone, a well-known scholar of Sicilian flora, and Fridiano Cavara, founder in 1903 of a botanical garden called “Gussonea”.
The garden is overlooked by Etna’s southern craters and is located in an area between the larch pine forests and the thorny plants, a typical high-mountain species. The garden preserves Etna’s plant species and is divided into several areas: the flower-bed area, the area where educational and informative activities take place, the nursery and the woodland areas, where Betula aetnensis, Fagus sylvatica, Quercus cerris, Quercus pubescens, Populus tremula and Quercus ilex grow.
Let’s move on now to the second botanical garden: the University of Catania’s Garden, which has its headquarters in the centre of the city, in Via Etnea. The garden was established in 1843 and inaugurated in 1858 by the Benedictine monk Francesco Tornabene Roccaforte. During the Second World War it was bombed, subsequently the large greenhouse was destroyed. In 2008, the greenhouse was rebuilt following the design of the old structure, and now it houses more than 160 plant species, including tropical ones. It covers an area of 16,000 square metres and is divided into two main areas: the hortus generalis (13,000 square metres) and the hortus siculus (3,000 square metres). The hortus siculus recreates the habitat for rare Sicilian endemic plants and contains specimens of the island’s wild plants. There are also 2,000 species of succulent plants, which grows in the open air and, because of their bizarre and original shapes, are one of the main attractions for visitors. The garden is an essential teaching aid for schools and university.
Let’s move on to the third garden, located in north-eastern Sicily: the Pietro Castelli Botanical Garden of the University of Messina. This place had a troubled history that can be divided into three periods: the first period goes from its foundation by Pietro Castelli in 1634, till its closure due to the Spanish occupation in 1678; the second period is related to the foundation of small private gardens that replaced the ancient hortus messanensis; the third phase is the one of the garden refunding and goes from 1889 to the present day. Currently the Garden is a small arboretum of about one hectare in size, embedded in the urban context, and home to several tropical species. It also has a large collection of succulent plants and a small greenhouse containing a wide variety of carnivorous plants. A large area is dedicated to the flora of the Peloritani Mountains in danger of extinction. The Garden is very active in extra-school and extra-university educational promotion with workshops to raise awareness about paper recycling.
The fourth and final garden of our tour is on the way to the capital: the famous Garden of the University of Palermo. It was founded in 1779, when the Accademia degli Studi Regi (today’s university) established the chair of Botany. Soon, the small plots of land used for scientific purposes were no longer sufficient and the Garden was moved to its current location in Piano di Sant’Erasmo. In 1787, even Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, during his trip to Italy, visited the Palermo Garden and was impressed by the rich variety of plant species housed in the Garden of Palermo. In 1892 it reached the size of about 10 hectares. The Garden is divided into several sections: the ancient section with Linnaeus’ classification, the modern section with Engler’s classification, the Gymnasium (the former teaching centre of the Royal Academy), the Calidarium and the Tepidarium (housing, as the names suggest, warm and temperate climate plants ), the Aquarium (with 24 tanks housing aquatic plants) and the greenhouses of succulents and ferns. In total, 12,000 plant species are exhibited here – it’s a very crowded garden! But that’s not all. In addition to the plants, the subtropical environment is also populated by special guests: parrots of the Psittacula Krameri species, which have fled from the aviary of the nearby Villa Giulia in Palermo and have settled perfectly into the Garden’s habitat.