San Giuliano

Michael McCoy travels through Sicily and reports on a garden that made him rethink his opinion of cactus!


I’m happy to confess that I’m no lover of cactus.  I find them amazing, and compelling in their weirdness, but I’ve never been one bit tempted to make a garden entirely of cactus, and the idea of mixing them with other subtropical exotics just made my brain hurt.



Yucca rigida


Until I visited San Giuliano, in Sicily, that is.  I had absolutely no idea of what to expect as I headed along the tall-grass-lined roads south of Catania, though was excited to spot great sweeps of a miniature white daffodil – curiously autumn flowering, and strongly scented (that I later identified as Narcissus serotinus).



Narcissus serotinus. Photo – Michael McCoy


But the moment the old wrought iron gates started to swing open, apparently by magic, unveiling a striking composition of large cactus as foreground to an ancient Sicilian villa, I knew that my preconceptions were going to get a serious shake-up.


Old wrought iron gates.

Old wrought iron gates.

Stone cortyard

Stone courtyard


Floating overhead was the billowing canopy of the silk-floss tree (Ceiba sp) in full extravagant bloom, adding a dimension of tropical abundance to the otherwise parched-garden signals received from the rest of the planting.


Silk-floss tree (Ceiba sp)

Silk-floss tree (Ceiba sp)


And I think it was this combination, repeated all over the place, that surprised and delighted at every turn.  I’ve come to understand that I crave a sense of oasis in a garden, so cactus on their own don’t cut it.  But blend them – very, carefully and very cleverly – with flamboyantly coloured and strongly-growing tropicals and you have the makings of something that presses all the visual and visceral buttons – the perfect combination of restraint and highly-coloured craziness.


Blending cactus with tropicals. Photo - Michael McCoy

Blending cactus with tropicals. Photo – Michael McCoy


You’d have to say that it helps to have, as a backdrop, a monolithic and totally timeless villa that looks like it has grown up out of it’s site, or like it was formed underground and simply revealed after centuries of erosion.


Timeless villa. Photo - Michael McCoy

Timeless villa. Photo – Michael McCoy


Standing on the lawn at the front, examining the façade with its time-worn stucco and striding bulls-blood coloured window frames, I came to the sudden realization that plants as visually powerful as columnar cactus need architecture this muscular to set them off.  My pretty, white weatherboard house would plumb new depths of pathetic-ness in their presence, but this massively solid pile is the companion par-excellence.  Mount Etna lurks quietly but insistently in the background, adding further layers of sense-of-place.


Lawn view. Photo - Michael McCoy

Lawn view. Photo – Michael McCoy


I’ve seen gardens all over the world – and many of them with many of you! – but rarely have I seen a plant-driven garden so unique and successful that is gardened by staff.  Most of the gardens I love the best are created by great garden owners.  In this case it’s the rare combination of a garden loved deeply by its owner, the Marchesi di San Giuliano, but tended equally lovingly for decades by its English-born head gardener, Rachel Lamb.





The combination of landscape, villa, owner, gardener and planting made for a garden visit that I can’t wait to repeat.


Michael will be returning to Italy in September, and you can join him. For more details check the Sicily tour itinerary here.

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