• Sofias Country Gardens

Bologna botanical garden



When I asked at the hotel I was staying for directions to Bologna botanical garden, the concierge looked at me with a firm look of disapproval. "It is not one of Bolognas beautiful gardens," he said, "you would do much better going to Giardini Margherita!" As I collect botanical gardens, I wasn't persuaded and once I got there, I was happy I made the effort. It is a sweet little university garden, that focuses on teaching while also including little bit of wildlife conservation. The teaching element is noticeable in a discreet way in all areas of the garde, from the information signs detailing whats on show with the history of the topic through to the plants to the layout with systematic beds, greenhouse, a medical herb garden and a wild area with tall grass and old trees.


Actually I wasn't the only one enjoying a visit to the garden on a Friday afternoon. Although my pictures are gloriously free of people in them, it was a bit of a challenge to manage snaps without photo bombers in them. Especially in the entrance garden, by the fountain, people were sitting in the shade enjoying the sunshine, and then in the wilder part of the garden where group of children were happily running around. That is the thing about gardens; they bring so much joy to people even when they are small and inconsequential.


Right by the entrance infront of the greenhouse there is a fairly thorough exhibit on agriculture, cultivation and domestication of plants throughout history. Here agriculture is shown as the continuum of exploiting wild plants through to cultivation and domestication. Cultivation is the human action whereby the survival, reproduction and growth of certain plants is enhanced by preparing soil, planting seeds or plants and performing tasks that increase their productivity. This invariably leads to domestication, whence the plants eventually become incapable of surviving in the wild as the genetic makeup has evolved. Features of domestication syndrome includes loss of dispersal, seed dormancy and chemical or mechanical protection against herbivores while typically the size and especially of the harvested part of the plant increases


All of our garden plants have gone through this process, and many have been genetically altered by focused breeding to enhance their most favoured aspects, like the beautiful and deliciously smelling Mock orange (Philadelphus coronaries) above. However, some plants are just wonderful to begin with, like the insectivorous plants on show in an other part of the garden.


The term carnivorous plant was only introduced in 1942 by Francis Ernest Loyd, for plants that extract nutritive substances by digesting animals such as insects, protozoa and arthropods which they capture by means of trap derived from modified leaves. This allows them to survive in extreme environments in which generally the soil is generally strongly acidic, with low levels or devoid of mineral salts (especially nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium). There are about 600 species with more than a dozen genera and families of carnivorous plants in the world.


One of my favourite parts of any Mediterranean garden is always the herb garden, and this one was no exception. Beautifully laid out, and well kept, its signs patiently explained the advance of medical and botanical sciences in medieval Europe where the original funktion of botanical gardens was to display plants for medical use. At that time the University of Bologna was one of the most important centres of Italian Botanical culture, with Luca Ghini (1490-1556) holding the chair of botany, known at the time as Chair of Herbs. This chair was in fact adressed to medical students and for a long time medicine and botany remained united disciplines. The original site of the garden was in the city center, in the courtyard of the Public Palace (Palazzo Publico), and this is a modern version of a "Garden of Simples" where 'simple' means a herb used on its own in medical treatment.


Red Valerian, or Devils Beard, Valeriana rossa (Centranthus ruber) is one of my favourite plants, but unfortunately it will never survive in my own cold climate garden. Previously it was thought to have medical propensities, but this was most likely as it was confused with true valerian Valeriana officialis. It is however an edible plant, with leaves used fresh in salads and roots boiled in soup.


The far part of the garden - which actually must have been about third of the whole plot - was devoted to a wilder habitat with tall grass and enormous trees, and one of the most impressive Butternut trees (Juglans cinera) I have ever seen. It is also called white walnut and it is a species of walnut that is native to the eastern United States and southeast Canada.


Tucked away to the right of this enormous tree, in a corner, was a small and very overgrown rockery by a wildlife pond housing reeds and a host of lizards and dragonflies. I guess the rockery and pond had once been someones project that had simply been forgotten, as they just sat there overgrown and happy. Happy I say, as this little place was teeming with wildlife and a very healthy population of lizards enjoying the sunshine.


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