Two little pearls suddenly emerge from the water of the lake… Two sparkling green stains whose colours melt with those of the water that surrounds them … Two little treasures that in springtime flourish and become a true remote paradise, where everything seems distant and make you want to escape and enjoy the surrounding nature.
15 minutes far from the port of Ascona (Italian speaking part of Switzerland), the Brissago Islands are home to the largest botanical garden in the Canton of Tessin. This wonderful botanical park lies in the larger of the two islands, called "Isola di San Pancrazio", opened to visitors in 1950. Here you can mainly find plants used to subtropical climate zones of northern and southern hemispheres. About 1,700 species of plants and flowers are cultivated there: coming from all major Mediterranean climate areas (Mediterranean basin, Chile, South Africa, Australia and California) and from the humid subtropical climate areas (like Asia, North and South America and Oceania). Whilst the smaller island, called "Isola di Sant'Apollinare" is covered with its natural vegetation.
The vast amount of exotic plants, which you would never expect to find in these latitudes, is due to the fact that the region where the Brissago Islands are located enjoys a mild climate during the year, with just a few days of frost. The water of the lake in fact accumulates heat during the hot summer days and the Swiss Alps, which protect this territory, ensure that this heat is also available during wintertime. This atmospheric phenomenon makes Brissago Islands enjoy subtropical climate throughout the year!
The intuition to design a botanical garden on an island came to Baroness Antoinette de Saint Léger and her husband Richard Fleming, with whom she shared the passion for botany. They bought the two Brissago Islands in 1885 and transformed the largest one in an exotic garden. The couple's home was instead built on the small island.
Baroness de Saint Leger was a very self-confident woman and also very proud of his botanical garden, so much so that she did not want the fishermen go too close to the Island. She even wrote a diary on cultivated species: "The vegetation of the Island of St. Leger in Lago Maggiore", which was published in London in 1913.
Great lover of arts and culture and open to new ideas, her house soon became a destination for painters, sculptors, musicians and writers. Abandoned by her husband, she could dedicate herself to her passion more than ever. But this passion led her to do some bad financial investments and the Baroness lost everything. She fell into poverty and in 1927 she was forced to sell the Islands to a wealthy German businessman, Mr James Max Emden.
The German entrepreneur made some changes to the islands: he built a bigger house, a splendid Roman bath, "the orangery" and the dock. Since he cared botany pretty much, not only the botanic garden remained there but it was even expanded.
James Max Emden enjoyed good life (his motto was "even to live is an art") and he often used to organize parties in the palace.
He had two main merits that deserve recognition: having made improvements to the islands and having delivered to us the little treasure we can still enjoy today.
Not only the residence and grounds were enlarged but for rebuilding the house Max James Emden made only use of the finest materials (such as Carrara marble, for example, and finely carved Florentine floor) and hired skilled architects who cared to built the residence in harmony with the botanical look.
Since 1950 the Brissago Islands are open to public who can enjoy the view of countless amounts of exotic plants coming from all over. And if you want this to be an unforgettable experience, in the small island there is the “Hotel Isole di Brissago” with direct access to the beach and its delicious Mediterranean restaurant.
I always like to come come back here, relax and take a walk through the garden. Everytime there is something unexpected that catches my attention!