Caleb Melchior is living the prairie dream as a graduate landscape architecture student in Manhattan, Kan. He looks forward to the day when he, once again, has a garden of his own in which to grow all the plants that catch his eye and tickle his fancy.

This article applies to:



From the Mediterranean to Midwestern Gardens
by Caleb Melchior    

Italian gardens, both small and large, often are primarily composed for effects of light and shade, with flowers adding welcome transient color, such as these yellow tulips at Villa d’Este.

When I opened the shutters on the kitchen window and saw the giant magnolia, which filled most of the neighbors’ garden, I knew that everything was going to be all right.

We had arrived in Rome only that morning, groggy after a 12-hour flight, and boarded a bus through the rain toward Orvieto, a tiny hilltop town in Umbria. The sky had wept with joy ever since we arrived, but the soggy trek from bus station to apartment left me damp in body and spirit. Our landlady’s threats, given in a broken combination of Chinese, Italian and English, regarding the terrible punishments which would await us (“you will be fined 300 euro”) if we failed to sort the recycling into its appropriate bins for each of the five days of collection, did nothing to brighten my disposition. But, opening the kitchen window and seeing that giant arboreal reminder of home, I knew that the gods had smiled upon me in my wanderings. Many of us gardeners are also compulsive travelers. Our love of place makes us passionate about exploring and observing, searching for strange new wildflowers or secret mountain overlooks. We go, and when we return, our gardens are waiting to welcome us home.

Others travel through their gardens, growing plants from exotic places they will never experience. Living in Umbria, I was amazed to discover how many of the wild and cultivated plants growing there could also thrive in my Midwest garden. Given Umbria’s continental climate, it receives colder winters and warmer summers than many of the more popularized regions of Italy. While the oranges of Sorrento would wither in our cold winters and the geraniums beloved around Lake Como would steam-bake in our humid summers, the Umbrian flora can translate easily to a continental American garden.

I arrived in Umbria at the end of January, when the cyclamen were covering the hillsides with mottled deep green and silver leaves. In spring, some species, including Cyclamen coum and Cyclamen persicum, kindle the slopes with their brilliant magenta flowers. During the summer, their aboveground growth dies off and the bulbs rest underground. Cyclamen hederifolium and Cyclamen purpurascens bloom in late summer or early autumn. Most species bring out fresh crops of foliage when cool weather returns in autumn.

American gardeners, especially in the Midwest, often neglect the potential of bulbs to create long-season garden interest. Both Cyclamen coum and Cyclamen hederifolium grow well throughout the Midwest. Your local nursery may not stock them, making it essential to rely on specialist nurseries – they are incredibly easy to grow once established. Since cyclamen do most of their growing in the colder months of the year, they need little moisture during the summer and thrive in dry shade where few plants survive.

Perennial cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum) erupt in smoldering magenta flowers in spring, at the Park of the Monsters in Bomarzo.

During the winter, cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium) foliage carpets the ground, while its corms rest underground until they are eaten by the wild boar that snuffle along the forest floor.

As the spring sun arose, a proliferation of wildflowers emerged in the hedgerows and verges of highways. In Umbria, the grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) sprouts up to 6 inches with deep cobalt flowers. This Mediterranean variant’s flower heads are looser, with longer stems than are often seen in American strains. In American gardens, I often see grape hyacinth placed at the front of garden beds, where their floppy foliage is evident throughout the growing season. Along Italian roadsides, they grow mixed in with long grasses which disguise the grape hyacinth leaves. A suitable combination might be to plug some grape hyacinth bulbs in between masses of Korean feather reed grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha) at the back of a shady area. The grape hyacinths will be highly evident in spring, while the grasses fill in with glossy green foliage through the summer and explode into clouds of flower in autumn.

As spring starts to round into summer, the tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa) come into bloom. While herbaceous peonies are the most popular in American gardens, the shrubby varieties of tree peonies are most common in Umbrian gardens. At the gardens of Villa d’Este in Tivoli, with its giant fountains and ancient cypresses, the tree peonies are one of the great treasures. Their large, overblown flowers seem to be made of living fabric, as they wave soft satin petals washed lavender and rose.

Even in a dooryard garden, tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa) bring delightful fragrance and color.

In an Orvietian dooryard garden, I saw a tree peony with full pink flowers, their stems bent with the weight of the giant blooms. Any American gardener can grow these fantastic flowers, given a little shade and some patience while waiting for the plants to settle in.

Another plant for the patient, at least if flower production is considered, the Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis), is frequently grown in Italy. The bright lavender-blue flowers glow against the golden stone of tufa walls in Umbrian hill towns such as Orvieto.

Perhaps not as rampant in growth as they are in the United States, the wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) becomes a fantastic waterfall of bloom in early summer.

Down the street from our apartment, spreading over an archway and the adjacent garden wall, a giant wisteria erupted into a cascade of lilac-colored flowers. As I sat drawing the flowers, the sparrow-eyed old woman who owned the wisteria wandered out and peered over my shoulder. She took a great puff on her cigarette, fixed her eyes on me as she exhaled, and confidently told me that the plant – which in Italian is called “glicine” – was 200 years old. How she knew its age, I am still unsure.

All I can say for certain is that, in much of the United States, wisteria is delicate in appearance but the complete opposite in habit. I know of one wisteria growing in a Midwest garden whose owner claims that they cut the plant back by 3 feet every two weeks in the summer. Both Chinese (Wisteria sinensis) and Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda) should only be planted where their vigorous growth can be fully supported. Before planting, check with a local gardening expert or your university extension office to ensure that wisteria is not invasive in your area. The native American species (Wisteria frutescens) is slower growing, eventually reaching 12 to 15 feet, but its flowers are smaller, chunkier, and with a less flowery fragrance.

While nothing can compare to the Italian countryside, with its profusion of color and aroma, Midwestern gardeners can capture a souvenir of its beauty by growing Umbrian plants. When the cyclamen ripple over the ground with their silver-marbled leaves and the wisteria permeates the spring air with its ecstatic perfume, you will be transported to the Italian garden of your dreams. After all, what are gardens for, if not for collections of memories and desires?

Form State-by-State Gardening November/December 2013. Photography By Caleb Melchior.


Posted: 01/01/14   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Other People Are Reading