If spring has been uncertain here, it has been the same all over Europe, the moods of April testing gardeners’ nerves and creating memorable effects of sun and rain in the same picture.
Are you ever reluctant to test the reality of a cherished dream? That must be the reason we had left the Italian Lakes for so long unvisited. So long, in fact, that my mental pictures of them were mainly in black and white: memories of parents’ photographs of their honeymoons. Could such an innocent dreamland still exist?
It depends when you go. The Lakes are on Milan’s doorstep. In summer the coaches, I’m told, are bumper to bumper and the cafes round the boat-landings no fun at all. In early April, with trees just starting to green and little squalls corrugating the water, visitors are as tentative as flower buds. It is the magnolia moment and the camellia climax, and yet (at least on weekdays) a good proportion of them are born to blush unseen.
We went with a party from the International Dendrology Society. Dendrologists walk with heads high, eyes on the treetops. Some even carry tapes to measure any specially girthy specimen. Parts of the Lakes have the sort of rainfall combined with summer warmth that makes trees luxuriate. The biggest tree of all, though, and one of Europe’s most famous, had had a terrible accident. The Kashmir cypress on Isola Madre in Lake Maggiore was brought down by a freak tornado in 2006. It was worth the journey to see the efforts being made to save the life of this marvellous creature. Winching its 70 tons from prone to upright was only the beginning. Step two was to cut off most of its glorious blue tresses while feeding its roots with the rarest delicacies. It towers again over the palace of the Borromeo family on the summit of their garden-island, surrounded by white peacocks – and so many other remarkable plants that a dendrologist is left reeling.
The two islands transformed by the Princes Borromeo into gardens are a mere brisk boat-row apart. Isola Madre is the plantsman’s island; Isola Bella the famous architectural fantasy of a galleon riding the waters, a garden of amazing ingenuity, fantasy, craftsmanship and
panache. Strict formality was the original plan, as the head gardener, Gianfranco Giustina, explained. The extravaganza of its terraces and statues, fountains and cascades was to be coloured by bedding and punctuated by pots but .unobscured by climbers and trees. Vain hope. More romantic ideas prevailed in the 19th century. Little trees grew lofty, wisteria mounted the terraces and the cult of rhododendron brought towers of scarlet blooms. The massive Borromeo palazzo still forms the prow, and the poop is still a soaring theatre of baroque statuary; in between and all around horticulture holds sway.
Wisteria is a principal motif of the lakes and their gardens. Pruning it is an art Italians well understand. No pillar or plinth or lintel is too modest to be given its climber; the wisteria, though, with its potential to become forest-sized, is precisely pruned to fit its billet. Years of pruning give it astonishing character; with arabesques of branches under severe control, plump buds releasing curtains of scented purple. Thickets of camellias, parades (even pergolas) of lemons and forests of magnolias in voluptuous flower make such a feast of petals that your eyes turn almost with relief to the level waters of the lake.