The Vatican Gardens & Those Amazing “Broccoli Trees”

18 Oct The Vatican Gardens & Those Amazing “Broccoli Trees”

Picking up on where I left off last month, I finished the summer right where I started it, touring gardens. I have a very good friend, Dan Bartiromo, who sells travel. Dan has always had the ability to put me in the right place, at the right time, and for our summer vacation this year our families traveled to Italy together. As Dan was planning every minute detail of our trip, Danny is a bit obsessive, he asked if there was an experience that I would enjoy doing? Casually, over dinner, I asked if he could get me a tour of The Vatican Gardens… 8 hours later it was done!

A private tour of the Gardens, with a certified Vatican historian, takes thoughtful planning in advance. However, in the end, it is totally worth it! Formally known as The Gardens of Vatican City, informally as The Vatican Gardens, these are private urban gardens and parks owned by the Pope. Imagine a sovereign territory, the world’s smallest country, where nearly half of its total land mass is covered in magnificent gardens. Now imagine centuries of the Papacy putting their own personal stamp on what they have all held dear. A place where faith and nature intersect, holding hundreds of different plant genus only to be outnumbered by precious artifacts, many given to the Papacy in kind. Temples, fountains, statues, towers, houses, an airport, a railway station, even a replicated grotto are all maintained and held within its towering walls. Mediterranean plants coupled with exotic species, from around the globe, are punctuated by lawn panels and century old trees. Hedges made from unconventional plants like southern Magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora and bay leaf, help frame the iconic dome of The Papal Basilica of St. Peter, capturing it in a way seldom seen. The “Dome”, principally designed by architect Donato Bramante, was later passed to Michelangelo in 1547. The final touches, if you will, came from Giacomo della Porta, a pupil of Michelangelo, Domenico Fontana and Carlo Maderno as Michelangelo died in 1564, never seeing this projects completion.

Pope Nicholas III moved his residence from the Lateran Palace to the Vatican in 1279 and here is where it all began. A large wall was erected around vineyards and orchards and in the 16th century, under Julius II, the gardens underwent a bit of a “facelift.” Architect Donato Bramante brought a more theatrical Renaissance emphasis to this space. The Gardens are divided into three distinct styles, representing Italian, English and French design. The Vatican Gardens soil, supposedly, was brought brought back from the Holy Land by St. Helena? Whatever soil the plants are in, it is obvious that they continue to flourish in it. Fifty-five gardeners, I was told by my tour guide Valentina, maintain the various gardens and attend to every detail. Valentina, my certified personal guide for the Vatican, answered every historical question I had. She appreciated my love for plants and was struck by my eagerness to see as many plants in the garden as possible. “I have never given a tour quite like this before” she said, as I continued to lead her around the gardens trying to identify every plant that I could.

The punctuality of the Italians was something that I was very appreciative of. Every tour that I took on vacation was met on time and with enthusiasm. Upon entering the Gardens, one of the first plants that I saw was Maidenhair fern, Adiantum. Having foliage reminiscent of Ginkgo leaves, that was an easy ID for me that kept repeating itself throughout the garden. Particularly at the end of the tour peering beneath a statue of Goddess Cybele’s feet. Tucked in and amongst crevices, framing century old benches, I knew this was the start of something magical.

The first, and in my mind, the most awe-inspiring fountain to experience was the Fontana dello Scoglio or dell’ Aquilone, Fountain of the Eagle. A 17th century fountain that has dragons spewing water from their mouths. There are more than 100 “bubbling fountains” in the Vatican, but none as grand as this one. Standing at the edge of the forest, the Fountain of the Eagle is a composition of artificial rock. “The heraldic symbol of the Pope’s aristocratic Borghese family, an eagle, in bright-colored stone tops the Baroque fountain” (www.nytimes.com/1997/07/06/travel/glorious-gardens-of-the-vatican.html). The fountain symbolizes the return of water to the Vatican from the Acqua Paola, a majestic fountain we happened across walking back from Vatican City located on Janiculum Hill. Seeing water spurt from the mouths of dragons and dolphin-riding tritons was as impressive as the Trevi Fountain I thought.

Moving forward, Valentina pointed out to me the Pontiff’s private vegetable garden. A good size parcel dedicated to the Pope’s table, there is clearly a farm to table appreciation here. Unfortunately, I was denied the total experience as the hedges were just too tall for me to see. I surmise, after tasting my way thru Italy, that the Pontiff enjoys fresh zucchini flowers, a Caprese salad comprised of tomatoes and Burrata and perhaps some fresh melanzana or eggplant… I know we did on vacation. The culinary experience that Italy affords you is unrivaled!

Along the way, paved roads and gravel paths had me taking in all that nature could afford here. Plane trees from North America, cedars from Lebanon, rare maples, uncommon conifers, lantana and begonia annual planters, Italian cypress, clipped boxwood, palms and my favorite… the Roman pines! Some may call them stone pines, umbrella pines or parasol pine, I call them Pinus pinea. Large needled evergreens with suspended canopies, held sharply above reddish-brown, deeply fissured bark crackled in panels. Bright green needles appear in bundles of two and oval to spherical cones ripen to a chestnut brown fading to grey. Large edible seeds or pine nuts are produced from this tree and are treasured as an epicurean treat. You may know them as pignoli or piñon nuts? Toasted treasures used as additions to salads, pasta, pesto or cookie toppings, these trees were everywhere in the Garden. And for that matter everywhere I looked on vacation, whether it was Naples, Rome, Sorrento… even Portici (Por-Ta-Chi)! My favorite description came from our tour guide in Rome, Raffaele “Ralph” Tommasone, who called them “Broccoli trees,” the best description I have heard thus far. Following my tour, and just as I was entering St. Peters Basilica I noticed a bronze door with reliefs. The central door is the oldest. Pope Eugene IV commissioned the Florentine, Antonio Averulino, known as Filarete (1400-1469) to make the two bronze imposts which he completed in 1445. “The two lowest panels show St. Paul sentenced by Nero and the martyrdom of St. Paul, who kneels as, blindfold, he the stroke of the sword that will take his life, and the martyrdom of St. Peter, dragged to the Vatican Hill where he is crucified. St. Paul then appears to Plautilla, to give her back the veil she had lent him to blindfold his eyes” (stpetersbasilica.info/Interior/DoorFilarete.htm). And it is here where I am reminded of the glorious Roman pine trees, I so covet, as they appeared to me in this scene! Clearly these trees have been an important part of life, represented by artists throughout history. Even the “Casina del Giardiniere” or Gardener’s Lodge, housing the head gardener of the Vatican, has his home framed by these “Broccoli Trees.” Incidentally, other pines producing an edible nut are Swiss stone pine, Pinus cembra, Korean pine, Pinus koraiensis, Colorado pinyon pine, Pinus edulis and Single-leaf pine, Pinus monophylla. However, Pinus pinea is the grand champion, it seems, to many “Foodies.” Tasty seeds harvested from the tree’s cones add a nutty crunch and earthy flavor to most any meal. In total, some twenty species of edible pine nuts are available in the market.

As we pressed on, I began to feel the pressure of trying to cover as much as I could in just two short hours. Just then I saw a bird soar above our heads and perched itself perfectly in a Cedar of Lebanon. Again, Valentina who seemed to know “everything Vatican”, said “that was a parrot and they are responsible for the destruction of the tops of some of the trees.” A colony of monk parrots (Myopsitta monachus Boddaert) are nesting in the cedar trees in the Gardens. Valentina said that the parrots build their nests, heavy at times, with a hole at the bottom and at the top for entrance and exiting. These colorful birds, while exotic and beautiful, are breaking the tops of trees, thus altering the overall appearance of the Garden.

Another magnificent tree type repeating itself throughout the Garden, and all of Italy for that matter, was olive trees, Olea europaea. Perhaps the most famous olive tree, known today, is the one in Vatican Gardens. “Two leaders who signed the Oslo agreement in 1993, Israeli President Shimon Peres, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas joined the Pope to plant an olive tree in the Vatican garden together with Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew” (thejewishpluralist.net). The Viale Degli Ulivi, street of olives, provided other stunning views as did the olive in front of the plaque mentioning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The most emotional experience of the tour had to be the curated tree collection just inside the Viale Benedetto XV (road passage). Admitting, I am not Catholic, nor am I someone who goes to church every Sunday, I was overcome with this “alley” of biblical trees! A series of small trees planted in simple terracotta containers, here was a representation of most, if not all, of the plants mentioned in the Bible. Complete with a colorful plaque, botanical name, graphic and description associated with each. The most significant of all the plants mentioned, again in my mind, was the Thorns of Christ or Jerusalem Thorn (Matteo 27. 28,29), Paliurus spina-christi. The name reflects the spiny branches that were used to make the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head before His crucifixion. Other notable Biblical trees were:  Sweet Gum (Esodo 30. 34-35), Liquidambar orientalis, a member of the cashew family (Genesi 43. 11), Pistacia vera, Black Mulberry (Luca 17.6), Morus nigra, Oriental Plane Tree (Ezechielle 31.8), Platanus orientalis, Citron (Cantico Dei Cantici 2.3), Citrus medica, Fig (seeming to appear from almost every open crevice in the Garden) (Matteo 7. 15,16), Ficus carica, toxic Oleander (Siracide 30.13), Nerium oleander (used by Romans to rid their opponents thru tea and other food sources), Papyrus (Exodus 2.3), Cyperus papyrus, Myrtle (Isaia 41. 18,19), Myrtus communis, Common Grape (Ezekiel 18. 1-2), Vitis vinifera, Bay Laurel (1 Pietro 5.4), Laurus nobilis, Common Olive (Zac 4:1-5), Olea europaea, Italian Cypress (Genesi 6: 13,14), Cupressus sempervirens and pomegranate (Deuteronomy 8: 7,8), Punica granatum. All of the plaques associated with these trees made specific reference to their place in the Bible. An amazing experience that held my attention longer than any other in this Garden.

The Casina Pio IV or Villa Pia is a patrician villa in Vatican City. Now home to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, it was the clipped hedges, towering conifers and huge palms framing its sides that drew me in closer. Its Mannerist front, Late Renaissance, and oval precinct, terraced into the hillside, complete with a sharp geometric floor pattern was afforded to me for only a few seconds. Caryatids and detailed mosaics greeted me and while colossal in its appearance, the surrounding plants did a great job situating it in the landscape. However brief the experience, stepping inside one of the two entrance gateways, this will be a sight that will stay with me throughout my lifetime.

The Statue of St. Michael the Archangel is a sixteen-foot bronze statue situated in front of a Bunya Bunya tree. An artistic work done by Antonio Lomuscio, near the Governors palace, had the blessings of Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Some believe the tree behind it to be a Monkey Puzzle tree, Araucaria araucana, however I don’t. My take away is that it is Bunya pine, Araucaria bidwillii found naturally in Australia rather than Chile or Argentina. Simply put, the loose pyramid shape and strong rope-like leaves were not there for me, which suggest Monkey Puzzle, thus my interpretation.

The wonderment of The Gardens of Vatican City seems boundless. A Papal coat of arms trimmed in boxwood, an “Artificial Cliff”, stretching some 200 meters long, has an intense collection of succulent Xerophiles (cactus types) and an exact replica of the Lourdes Grotto in France (a place where the Pope comes to pray and greet the faithful typically in May) are other highlights. A heliport, the world’s smallest national railway, just a scant 0.79 miles, (independent.co.uk) tucked behind St. Peter’s Basilica and its own radio station, the Marconi Broadcast Centre by famed inventor Guglielmo Marconi. Additionally, other familiar plants to admire and gawk at are Canary palms, a box elder maple, magnolia, beech, boundless fruit trees, sequoia types, bamboo, redbuds and a linden tree gifted by the Slovak Republic. Plant hardiness zone 9b affords such luxuries. There was even, at one time, “a Viridarium, a walled area of greenery styled according to medieval use, comprised of medicinal herbs (www.vatican-patrons.org).

The Gardens of Vatican City was simply sensory overload! It’s understandable why Popes and high clergy have used this space to contemplate life in its entirety. A serene, tranquil setting that seems to erase any sort of pressure the world has to offer. Passing through Baroque and Renaissance architecture, having an overwhelming pallet of plants at your disposal all with the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica visible at every angle. It was a unique opportunity to see the Vatican, I felt, from the inside out. Resplendent in all its form, colorful benches and plaques, fountains, the rose garden, towering purple bougainvillea framing a sign about Pope Leo XIII, and the cry-baby tree with its crimson-red flowers from Central South America, Erythrina crista-galli, all added to this experience. Even the happenstance encounter of seeing one of the gardeners on his spring green Viking lawn tractor, holding a string trimmer, was a thrill.

Our vacation had a constant theme, great people, great food and great gardens. Everywhere I looked there were magnificent trees. Whether it was the initial approach going to Vatican City, walking along Lungotevere Marzio marveling at the London Plane trees or at the intersection of Via Terenzio and Via Cola Di Rienzo where Ginkgo and Redbuds met. But for me, the greatest lasting impression will probably be our daughter Olivia and Danny and Michelle’s boys, Benny and Sammy finally understanding my passion for trees. On our last night in Venice we ate dinner at a restaurant Vinovino in their back garden. The appetizer we had was Sarde in Saor, fried and marinated sardines, topped with Pignoli nuts and raisins. They all said, “hey, aren’t those the nuts from those “Broccoli Trees” you like?” That comment made it all worthwhile as I felt they finally understood my love of plants.