Corfu, the island of gardens

Morning dew glistening on leaves shading moss-covered rocks is not a common sight in the Mediterranean, but on the island of Corfu it is a feature of many of the gardens visited by Kathimerini English Edition with the Mediterranean Garden Society last week. The typical Mediterranean vegetation one sees over most of Greece, where dry stony soils and a lack of rain are the norm, is here in profusion, and where gardeners have the inclination, time, taste and means to give free rein to their imagination, the results are truly magical. Corfu’s history, particularly over the past couple of centuries, has allowed it to escape many of the ravages of invasion and war that have often laid waste to other parts of Greece. The island’s relatively wet climate and flourishing cultural tradition have contributed to the almost continuous development of beautiful gardens that surround ordinary homes and grand estates alike in a setting of great natural beauty. The island was a favorite summer destination for Europeans even before Empress Elisabeth of Austria saw to the construction of the Achilleion, now a museum, overlooking the valley to the main town and the sea. Closer to town, Mon Repos was once the summer home of the former monarchs of Greece. Recently reopened as a museum, it is surrounded by a large park carpeted at this time of year with cyclamen. As an added interest for those interested in the local plants, one of the rooms in the villa is devoted to the botanical paintings of the «Flora of Corfu» by Felicity Baxter. Gardens old and new Some Corfiots have been fortunate enough to be able to maintain their ancestors’ homes and gardens throughout the ages; others have been revived by new owners. The estate of the Voulgaris family, now the home of Stefanos and Valentini Voulgaris, has gone through several transformations since it was granted by the ruling Venetians to Count Antonio Bulgari to reward him for his valor as master of the Corfu galley during the Turkish siege of Crete. It became the family’s country seat in 1715, in a village that had grown up some 300 years before. Gardens were first laid out in the late 18th century when the house served as the residence of Count Spyridon-Victor Bulgari, president of the Senate of the Ionian Isles. His daughter Isabella is the subject of a book by Valentini Voulgari, «Notes gia tin Isabella» (Estia, 1999), a fascinating account of how documents and musical scores discovered during a recent renovation of the house revealed not only the story of Isabella herself, but shed light on the history of the house, its environs and the island as well as the wider historical and political setting of the Ionian islands. At the beginning of the 20th century the front garden was designed around an intricate informal maze of Buxus, Pittosporum tobira and Laurus nobilis with winding gravel paths. The back garden was cleared to form an outdoor sitting area surrounded by laurels. In the 1990s, the front garden was redesigned to include sitting areas while retaining many of the existing hedging plants. Two lawns were laid out and two varieties of magnolias added to the existing palms and cycads as focal points. Lawns and clipped hedges of laurel and pittosporum flank the path leading from the gate to the front door, where there is a view straight through to a seating area at the back of the house, shaded by large trees. Agapanthus clustered around the base of pomegranate trees, as well as lantana and hydrangea, provide color in summer. Botanical artist Marjorie Holmes, whose work was recently exhibited in Corfu’s Museum of Asian Art, began gardening 30 years ago in an abandoned olive grove overgrown with indigenous shrubs and trees. This time of the year, after recent rains, early morning dew glistens on the mossy rocks and foliage in the sheltered, hillside garden shaded by huge cypress trees. A Thunbergia grandiflora was in bloom down one side of the house. Anemone japonica (pink Japanese anemones) grew in clumps along more commonly found Mediterranean plants such as plumbago and senecio. Huge pine trees and eucalypts have also been preserved. «I gather the pine needles to use as a mulch; they are particularly good under strawberry plants,» said Holmes. Paths wind up the slope linking the different levels, which are thickly planted with citrus trees and shrubs. The house on the highest point faces a small lawn and pool, surrounded by a variety of mixed borders. Further out in the countryside, Cali Doxiadis lives in a Tuscan-style farmhouse built in 1780 as a summer home on an 8-hectare farm devoted to viniculture. The land still produces vines and olives for private consumption and small quantities of fruit and vegetables, using largely organic methods. Several garden areas divided according to water needs have been developed since Doxiadis bought the property 28 years ago. A large walled courtyard leading to the front door is paved with stones, which have also been used to construct benches and low tables. Creeping plants appear to emerge naturally, different varieties of lantana, tulbaghia, lemon trees and wild geraniums fill raised beds, wisteria climbs over a pergola, and pots of annuals are gathered beside the front door. A boundary wall is covered in plumbago. Doxiadis, who has just been elected president of the Mediterranean Garden Society, gives her own account of the garden’s development and her approach to gardening, illustrated with color photographs, on the Society’s website ( The society, based in Greece, has a membership of over 1,500 people around the world and this year is celebrating its 10th anniversary. For further information, contact the society at PO Box 14, Paeania 19002, e-mail: [email protected] or fax 210.664.3089.