Tuscany’s secret, scented citrus gardens

A dozen artists sit hunched over canvas, intense in their work. The group has travelled south from Switzerland through northern Italy to Tuscany for a painting holiday and are now spread in and around a beautifully restored built brick building. Light streams in through floor to ceiling windows overlooking a garden full of citrus trees, many hugging the step walls or resting quietly in giant terracotta pots.

The class was working in a once abandoned limonaria, a silent witness to huge terracotta pots over-wintering lemon and citrus trees. Today it was full of the gentle noises of swishing paint brushes, pencils and charcoal. The limonaria once formed part of a noble family’s residence and is now integral to a smart hotel, the Villa Pichi Sermolli, named after the previous owners.

The hotel’s Baroque garden, a symmetrical, theatrical space is a living example of generations of owner’s wealth and taste. Areas within the garden are laid out like rooms, in geometric patterns and with a fountain being a focal point.  But for visitors, the heart of the garden is found in the tightly manicured lemon trees pinned to high walls and the heavily scented trees in the pots.

Buggiano Castello has its own micro-climate allowing exotic fruit such as limes, oranges and pomellos to thrive, high above the valley floor and the steaming former marshlands.

The Sermolli garden was one of six across Buggiano Castello I visited in October, sadly out the traditional citrus season but still with plenty of stories to be revealed. Across the gardens I found leaves damaged by an unseasonably brutal Spring hail, scorched leaves burnt as climate change raises temperatures, and local residents’ passion for the village’s long association with the citrus fruits. Buggiano Castello is a village in the grip of a bittersweet fever. Many of its private gardens are given over to the owners’ collective passion, that of citrus fruits from lemons and oranges to mandarins and pomelos.

Perched on a hilltop in western Tuscany, central Italy, Buggiano Castello is a place where lemon, lime and orange trees bloom on a picturesque outcrop set amongst Tuscany’s more familiar vineyards. 

Gardens are enclosed by high walls through which ornate gates open to reveal espaliers of fruit trees, neatly kept terraces, and narrow paths disappearing into vegetation and snaking around corners. Planting is geometrically rhythmic with trees and planting acting as theatrical backdrops to the daily lives of the local people. The number of residents varies around 90, with 80 volunteers signed up for membership of the Buggiano Castello Cultural Association. The group manages many of the events in the town and supports homeowners keep the village’s citrus tradition alive.

These locals share a love of citrus and this is key to keeping their village an attractive, vibrant place to live in and visit. Indeed, citrus fever grips the town with many of the residents volunteering for the biannual open garden festival. Every couple of years around the end of April and beginning of May the village hosts its ‘Campagna Dentro Le Mura’ festival which loosely translates as ‘The Gardens Inside the Walls’. The fleeting event sees hundreds of visitors clambering around private gardens admiring the sheer hard work, patience and a collective love of gardening.

A fragrant cast of non-citrus vegetation support a vibrant biodiversity and include sweet oranges and lemons; Mediterranean herbs such as sage and oregano; and plants from bamboos to roses and walnut trees. Buggiano Castello’s special micro-climate also suits olive trees and the ubiquitous pointy Cyprus pines seen across the Tuscany landscape. Culinary, Mediterranean fruits including persimmon, plum, apricot, pomegranate and fig can also be harvested across the village.

But for this village, citrus is the main attraction. Lemons (citrus limon), espalier lemons (espalier lemon), oranges (citrus sinensis) and mandarins (citrus reticulata) can all found pinned to the high, south facing walls or ordered in serried ranks across neatly kept, narrow terraces. Citrus trees also stand tall in terracotta pots, so heavy they need mini-tractors to move them.

Italian hilltop towns are generally full of buildings, high walls and offer few open green spaces. Not so at Buggiano Castello. There is greenery, open space in communal areas and everywhere branches heavy with citrus overhanging private garden walls, offer shade in the village’s twisting, cobbled, Medieval lanes.

Known locally as Borgo degli Agrumi, the village of citrus, Buggiano Castello is peppered with fruit trees that nature would suggest shouldn’t thrive here. But, a bizarre micro-climate allows these fragile trees to grow and produce fruit. 

The village lies some 186 metres above sea-level and some 50 metres above the main town of Buggiano. Stand at the edge of the village looking south and into a fairly industrial part of Tuscany on a clear, warm morning and a steamy haze softens the far view. My guide tells me this is steam rising from the marshes that were drained by military engineers working for the Austrian empire led by the Habsburg family in the late 18th Century. This newly created land was fertile and suited the growing of arable crops, and was never considered for citrus cultivation. However, in a botanical twist of fate, today, the valley is home to Oscar Tintori, a world famous nursery specialising in ornamental citrus plants.

Every two years, the metal gates of some 19 private gardens across the village are unlocked and open to the public for just two days, the last Sunday of April and first Sunday of May. The cultural offering is excitingly eclectic. This year’s event included literary readings linking the poetry to citrus, garden design, candied fruit tasting and olive oil appreciation.

Plan now for the next event in 2021! Click here for event website.

Bruce McMichael

Food writing, discovering food stories, meeting producers, chefs and food enthusiasts are all part of desire to inspire, inform my readers and fellow food lovers. I am a freelance writer, journalist and published author focusing on the international world of food and drink, culture and travel. In 2019 I graduated from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy with a Masters in Food Culture, Communication and Marketing. I am now a visiting Professor at the university teaching Food & Drink Writing. Based in London I travel widely, particularly across western Europe. I have chaired many conferences and meetings, spoken at conferences and events and often appear on radio and TV talking most about food, the business of food and being an entrepreneur. In 2017 I won an episode of the ITV (the UK-based national television channel) cooking competition show, 'Gordon Ramsay's Culinary Genius'. I took my children on holiday to Sicily with the prize money. As an experienced farmers' market manager and operator of a small marmalade/ preserves company, I am very familiar with the issues surrounding local food, farming, enterprise and the environment.

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