This is the first chapter of an audio journey by the genius loci of the Botanical Garden of the University of Palermo to rediscover the Sicilian landscape. The chapter that prepares for departure. The seven stages of the journey can currently only be listened to via the QR code on display in the exhibition.
ficus macrophylla f. columnaris
botanical garden of the university of palermo
I haven’t left this place for more than eight hundred moons.
On the other hand, I exist as a function of this place, in its continuous evolution.
I decided that I wouldn’t move anymore, that I would stay here and guard, following a trauma. I think it was in the 1950s – when I heard about a plan of the city of Palermo that envisaged something crazy. The construction of a big road that would cut the Botanical Garden in two.
The road would have practically run through the garden, the transit of vehicles would have shaken all the plants, broken the balance they had achieved after almost 200 years. It would have disturbed the flight and song of birds, obstructed the passage of insects, not to mention that of cats. It would have made this place less suitable for botanists’ experiments, less pleasant to care for, less enchanting for visitors.
That road would have put me to the test.
Maybe I would have ceased to exist…
Fortunately, the man who ran the garden at the time, Francesco Bruno was his name, had a brilliant idea. It wasn’t clear to me what he had really come up with until I heard about it some time ago from another man, a man who today takes care of life in this garden, and to some extent me too. His name is Manlio Speciale.
[Manlio Speciale] In other words, it was known that there were these remains of this portal, of this little church, which is not so well defined, let’s say from the point of view of the study, but in any case Chiaramontana, of a clear Chiaramontano style, therefore of the 16th century. At this point, Francesco Bruno with his figghi[i.e., “sons”] that’s what he called them in Sicilian dialect, his gardeners, who were many then… He decided, he thought better of it…. Overnight, on a beautiful night of a full moon, somehow so you could see something, with wheelbarrows to take all these pieces of this 16th-century portal and assemble it exactly where the road they wanted to build passed. He immediately bound the monumental property to the Superintendency of Cultural Heritage … until the construction of this road was definitively blocked.
The ruins of the portal have never been removed from the garden. Every time I look at them I draw a deep breath that mingles with that of the plants around me, a prehistoric breath.
I, on the other hand, am relatively young. I was born at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, between the Enlightenment and Romanticism, at a time animated by a spirit of transformation, of the union of opposites. Science, taxonomy, experimentation… here, in this place, they meet poetry.
That is why I consider myself restless…but perhaps I should better say curious? I find it hard to define myself. Manlio Speciale does it better than I do.
[Manlio Speciale] The activity in this botanical garden in some way determines this thing called genius loci, as basically in any other historical garden, is what we call her own activity. It is her very day-to-day unfolding, that is, an aspect of life one might say, the genius loci that is nourished by life itself.
Perhaps even said in this way, it is not easy to understand. To explain what I am – the genius loci of the Botanical Garden of Palermo – and the meaning of my existence, a comparison with a forest is needed.
[Manlio Speciale] A real forest can do without man very well. In fact, I would say that if man does not set foot in it directly, it does the best thing. Instead, it should be full of people here. Because it is the place par excellence of plants, but it is also the place par excellence of people.
[suono voci e radio di sottofondo]
I love people, and I love it when they turn on the radio. When I hear the gardeners’ three-wheeler vans coming, I always approach in the hope of hearing a few seconds of music. Then other sounds begin, those of hard work, which here – it must be said – is not lacking.
[Manlio Speciale] A botanical garden is completely the result of the forcing – I would even say – that man makes. But then again, so is any museum. That is, in museums we force works of art and artistic natures to be forcibly close to each other, even in the same room at times, completely different styles, completely different worlds, in order to have a picture, if we want it to be cultural, perhaps as complete as possible. We often do this in botanical gardens, which also often contravene the agronomic laws of cultivation. That is to say, we place plants a little too close together and often because we want that bed of sapindaceae rather than anacardiaceae to contain as many genera of that family and even more species as possible. But the plant would perhaps look a little better at a greater distance, don’t you think so? Therefore, all this kind of “forcing”, must go into a balance anyway, a balance that must always be focused on by man.
This balance, and this care, are the basis for the coexistence of plants from the most disparate parts of the world that would otherwise never have met. There is the ficus macrophylla forma columnaris that comes from the island of Lord Howe, between Australia and New Zealand, and which has now become my home… there is the royal palm of Cuba, Egyptian Cyperus papyrus plants, citrus trees from the Far East brought to Sicily by Arab traders… and even curious plants such as the Ceiba speciosa, which they call the bottle tree here because of the somewhat bizarre, bulging shape of its trunk.
Hundreds of species living together in a space of more than 10 hectares. Many people wonder how it is possible to irrigate such a vast terrain and give water to all these plants. The answer lies in the genius of this place, which also resides in invisible layers.
[Rosario Schicchi] The climate is mild, there is availability of a superficial water table that allows all the plants of the various continents to find an optimum for their growth… and therefore the water table being superficial allows the water to rise through capillarity and the roots intercept it and feed themselves. The ficus alone absorbs an enormous amount of water, that would take at least two tankers a day to furnish.
The man who now runs this garden has a deep knowledge of monumental trees and can well imagine the needs of the largest and most spectacular plants. However, Rosario Schicchi, that’s his name, also has a great sensitivity for what some people call weeds. A ridiculous name… which doesn’t make me laugh. It is also thanks to him that the garden of the simple is increasingly valued.
[Rosario Schicchi] I remember a lady came to my studio one day to make a note. ‘Tell me madam, there are too many weeds in this garden. Is there any rubbish? No weeds. Ah! Weeds? What’s a weed? I don’t know what a weed is. Then I’ll take you with me’. I say ‘Ma’am, is this it? Yes. Ah, yes, this is perfect. Ma’am. Do you have warts? No. If you had warts, I’d make them disappear with this liquid. But do you know what happens in nature? That the swallow plucks this twig, brings it into contact with the baby swallow’s eyes and cures conjunctivitis’. Can we call it a weed? No.
Heading west, my gaze falls on the foliage of another large ficus tree. It is the one named after a judge killed by the Mafia, Giovanni Falcone. I know how much this tree is loved, how important what it represents is. Yet it seems to me that it is suffocating in concrete.
[Salvatore Schicchi] Well, a nettle is not a weed. If I trivialise, we can make a risotto with nettles. If I removed it, what would I show visitors? Well the nettle – I have to say – is a food plant and has helped feed populations. Then the nettle… I explained to the lady that if I have numb hands I go and rub them with nettles. These stinging hairs if used in small quantities, will stimulate circulation, then it is no longer a weed, but a herb that has a right to exist in this garden, as do the trees that have been planted.
In short, if I had to describe the Botanical Garden I would say that it is a therapeutic place to cure not only hand circulation, but also the so-called plant blindness, a cognitive defect of humans whose brains often do not see, do not register, the presence of plants, let alone the so-called weeds. Instead, and this is really curious to me, all visitors notice the fruits of the citrus trees that have fallen to the ground, and many of them mutter comments about the waste.
[Paolo Inglese] People complain there are oranges on the ground, but when the fruit falls where does it belong? Do they have to be in our bellies? No. The fruit falls on the ground because it is carbon that is recycled, stop. From an ecological point of view the fruit has to fall on the ground, leave the seeds and die. It has to do so. It is no use to make a salad of oranges with herring, fennel… while we say ‘what a waste’, but what a waste?…it is waste to eat it from a plant point of view.
This man has also been around for a long time. His name is Paolo Inglese. This is a University Garden and he led the University’s museum activities. He rode around the avenues on his bicycle, and behind his glasses he kept a watchful eye on everything, from the silliest piece of paper squashed on the ground – which he did not fail to pick up – to the state of the most imposing trees.
When he was with guests he often stopped in front of the Ficus Magnolioide, the one I live in. It is older than the garden, but also the first one to be planted in Sicily. I think it was in the mid-nineteenth century. I remember it, it looked like a sapling, it came from a French nursery…no one expected it to grow like this.
[Paolo Inglese] They are dominant trees in their environments…’dominant’ means that they constitute ecohabitats practically in themselves. This tree is a habitat in itself. Nothing grows around it or in any case in the dominant range of its roots and crown. A very competitive tree. It strangles, it is the strangler Ficus, it grows around a primary or secondary tree, surrounds it and then develops its trunk with this immense crown. It also invented this system, this way of supporting the weight of the branches that are the aerial roots. The branches grow in many cases at a 90 degree angle to the main trunk, meaning that they grow almost perpendicular to the main branch.
The aerial roots when they touch the ground seem to become trees themselves… this tree looks like a forest.
[Paolo Inglese] This tree is really a demonstration of how a tree is not an individual. The tree is a giant community. If you think that each leaf does photosynthesis on its own, and that this thing that we might imagine in our anthropomorphic way of thinking as a single living being, is in truth a gigantic community in itself.
This community manifests itself in chorus towards evening, just before sunset. Then the sun goes down… and along with the sun, silence. It is at that moment that I also remember to rest. From the top of the ficus I look around. The visitors have gone out, the gardeners have finished their work, no more people can be seen. Only the animals and plants remain. Occasionally my eye falls on a plant right in front of the ficus, a Chamaerops humilis, a dwarf palm, which in theory would grow straight, but here is all twisted up.
And at times like this, when I am also thinking about my task, I realise that this world of plants is not always idyllic. Even among them there are monstrous squabbles.
[Rosario Schicchi] This Ficus had branches that reached here to the dwarf palm. The dwarf palm got the message ‘Do you want to live? Go away’ so it had to change the shape of the snaking stem in search of light. Look what this one does.. it curves, it touches the ground, it stands up, until it gets to the point where it receives enough light to perform chlorophyll photosynthesis. Here, this plant said to the palm ‘Move over if you want to live. Without even touching it.’
They called the palm humilis, but it is more patiens [i.e., patient]. It resists everything.
As I said, I have not left this garden for more than half a century, but I know that a few kilometres from here, to the west, there are palm trees that survive the fire. Just as, to the east, there are trees that live for centuries on the slopes of a mountain that spits lava, or citrus trees that grow in the middle of the sea, between circular stone walls to resist the wind, or almond trees that flourish where concrete has only brought rubble.
I think about these plants all the time, outside the borders of the garden, the last time I saw them. I know that they are now immersed in a completely new natural and social landscape. A landscape I don’t know…
but about which I am terribly curious.
I think I can rest easy.
I can look around and look for a ride.
The parrots don’t feel like getting out of here, but maybe a linnet or a blackbird does.
A short tour, a few days, then I will be back.
No one will notice.
Andando verso ovest, mi cade lo sguardo sulla chioma di un altro grande ficus. È quello intitolato ad un giudice ucciso dalla mafia, Giovanni Falcone. So bene quanto questo albero sia amato, quanto sia importante ciò che rappresenta. Eppure mi sembra che stia soffocando nel cemento.
A little further on, I make a stop at a place that I know, but find hard to recognise, a house that will be about my age, a couple of centuries old.
Before the 1950s I often came to the citrus groves around here. Now the citrus groves are no more. Even here I only see cement, glass, car sheets.
[Giuseppe Barbera] I was born amidst citrus trees, the house where we are now is surrounded by ten-storey buildings, when I was 18 years old it was surrounded by mandarins, by expanses of mandarins, you could barely catch a glimpse of Palermo from the first floor windows, Palermo could barely be seen at the back.
In this house today Giuseppe Barbera lives, a man I have seen many times in the garden, often talking about books about landscapes, plants, art and history.
[Giuseppe Barbera] When we lived in Palermo, we used to come here in the summer… My grandmother, says in a book, that when they did this big building speculation in the 1960s, she used to come here on the condition that the house in Palermo would be covered with a veil so that she would not see what had happened. The destruction of the landscape of her life… nothing like genius loci.
This tour of the island that I have set out to do will be more intense and surprising than I can imagine. There have been others betrayals like this one in Palermo. Some of us, we genius loci, have disappeared forever,… but I am sure there are others that have just been born.
I am tempted to stay a little longer at the ficus tree in this garden, I almost feel homesick already, but listening to this man talk about landscape reminds me why I left.
[Giuseppe Barbera] The landscape has this characteristic of holding complexity together. The problem in these times is precisely holding complexity together. Because it would be easy to say that I defend one landscape since it is beautiful and another because it is ugly. I do what I want with it. Or I defend one landscape because from an ecological point of view it is fundamental, and the other because I am building motorways or new petrochemical plants, as it has already happened… Everything is landscape, because an idea of landscape allows us to hold together, as they say, utility and beauty. This in my opinion is the challenge of these times and this is the reason why Sicily in terms of landscape is so important.
There is a little wind from the east, I take advantage of it.