La Mortola update Posted on February 26, 2014

One person says La Mortola is on the way up; the next visitor says it’s worse than ever. It’s been like this since the 1980s, when a posse of busy-bodies, largely from the RHS, (I was one, but the one that counted was the much- admired Director of Wisley, Chris Brickell) took action. The staff at this famous garden, the creation of the same Hanbury family that gave the RHS the land for Wisley, had gone on strike. The Hanburys had sold the property to the Italian state, little thinking what a mess Italian bureaucracy can make. What had been one of the world’s best sub-tropical gardens, a superb botanical collection on the borders of Italy and France, at the very point where the Alps collapse into the sea, so steep and sea-surrounded that frost never comes, was a weedy chaos, under soaring palms and cypresses and far rarer trees.

On my first visit the striking gardeners were camping in a cave-mouth near the monumental entrance. Negotiations followed, with British botanists setting new standards for organisation and maintenance: eventually the University of Genoa took responsibility. The question is, how are they doing?

The other day I was pleasantly surprised. The garden covers 18 hectares. You can’t expect perfection. But the most exceptional parts, collections of succulents and cycads in particular, are well weeded, cultivated and surprisingly well labeled. The whole garden looks in good health – even the lower reaches towards the sea where the citrus orchard is crisscrossed with pergolas. There are areas of long grass and weeds, but no dereliction.

There was one black moment, though: the discovery of a new (to me) and horrific predator on the box plants. It is a moth (Cydalima perspectalis) and its yellow, black-spotted caterpillar which gobbles box leaves and shoots until the plant is bare. “Piralide” is its vernacular name. It arrived in Europe three or four years ago, in Italy last year, and has (as you have guessed) no authorized treatment. One French gardener I know has gone on a spraying course to be ready for action, but the red flag is hoisted. What will it make of our island’s weather, and miles and miles of box hedges, I wonder.

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