Isola Madre Island Garden

 In Coastal Gardening, Exotic plants, Gardens Visited, Travel

Isola Madre island garden is a partner garden with the British Royal Horticultural Society  [RHS].

Since I’ve been a member of the RHS for almost 50 years a visit to the Isola Madre island garden has always been on my bucket list.

After weeks of lovely sunny weather our trip to this garden was in low cloud and persistent rain!

Due to the poor weather we decided to visit only one of the three Borromean Islands. a visit to the larger Isola Bella will have to wait for another day.

More details of both Madre and Bella islands can be found here.

Getting there

Isola Madre island garden, house, ferry boat

Arriving by ferry boat

This small island is on Lake Maggiore which is one of the beautiful Italian Lakes. The Lakes are situated in northern Italy and close to the foothills of the Alps.

We parked our camper van at a lakeside campsite in the small town of Stresa.

There are regular boats that cross Lake Maggiore and these stop off at the three islands of which Madre is the smallest. The boat service is efficient, reasonably priced and runs on time. Boats run every hour but out of the summer season it is worth checking in advance as the service may be reduced.

Our approach to the Isola Madre island garden by boat added an extra level of excitement and intrigue.



On arrival

Stepping off the boat we were greeted by friendly staff and we climbed the steps to the ticket office.

As members of the RHS we gained free entry but we felt that ticket prices were very reasonable.

It was immediately obvious that the island is planted with a wide range of hardy, half hardy and tender plants. But the overriding impression was of lots of lush green growth!

Climbing the steps we found ourselves on a narrow path and surrounded by tender and uncommon plants.

On this small island you are never far from the softening effect of water. As a result of this the micro climate of the island allows the gardeners to grow plants that would not otherwise survive outside at this latitude.

The whole island is planted as a garden and one soon gets the feeling of being surrounded by lush foliage and flowers.


Viale Africa

On the south side of the island a path bordered by plants is heavily planted with tender plants.

Ignoring the steadily worsening rain we pressed on! Most of the plants here were woody plants but I noticed several exotic looking plants growing right down to the water’s edge.

I would certainly have lingered here longer on a sunny day!


Camellia Terrace

Visiting in late September we could appreciate the lush and glossy foliage of Camellia planted here. Indeed there are many Camellia shrubs and trees widely planted all over the island.

A late winter or spring visit would be outstanding. The massed camellias would then be at their best.

You may be interested to read my blog which gives tips on growing Camellias here.


The Dock

Sticking to the perimeter of this small island we soon found ourselves at a small sheltered dock. I was intrigued to find a gondola suspended well above the water in the boat house.

The outlook from here was across the water to the eastern shoreline but there were many great looking plants that grabbed our attention.

A weeping tree, Styphnolobium japonica pendula

Styphnolobium japonica pendula

Calocasia esculenta Black Magic, purple plant in a pot

Calocasia esculenta Black Magic


A small and perfectly formed weeping tree immediately caught my eye! This Styphnolobium * japonica pendula would be a perfect small tree for a garden. [*formerly Sophora]

The purple leaf Calocasia in a pot was stunning. This can be grown in the UK but benefits from winter protection.


Gobbi Lawn

Heading uphill and towards the centre of the island I was struck by how beautifully the stone steps have been laid.

We were immediately surrounded by large evergreen trees, hedges and bamboos. This created an enclosed and private feel.

We soon discovered that this is also an area where many of the exotic birds hung out! Most were taking cover under the foliage of plants but we spotted several exotic pheasants. We also discovered the trade mark white peacocks for which the island is renowned.

Silver pheasant, bird on wall

Silver Pheasant

white peahen, bird

White Peahen

Golden pheasant, bird

Golden Pheasant


In this part of the garden I noticed several large spring flowering Magnolia trees that would surely look spectacular when in bloom in late winter! But during the summer there are plenty of evergreen Magnolia grandiflora trees that had clearly been flowering all summer long. No doubt they filled the air with their spicy citrus like scent. Indeed, we discovered that we had already entered the Magnolia Grove.


Cashmir Loggia

On the east side of the large house there stands a huge specimen of the Cashmir cedar [Cupressus cashmeriana glauca]. This tree is tender and can be damaged by frost if grown outside in the UK. I recall growing this species in a glasshouse in Hampshire many years ago but I do believe that there is there a specimen growing outside at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens. That garden is well worth visiting as I describe in my blog here.

The Cashmir cedar dominates this garden. It was an even bigger tree prior to 2006 when it was blown down by a tornado. Reducing the tree by a third it was raised again and stands now with substantial wire cables holding it in position.

Weeping conifer, Cupressus casmerianaa

Cupressus cashmeriana glauca

It’s interesting that this beautiful weeping blue tree is described as the Cashmir cedar since the Hillier Manual states that it is from Bhutan.

My photo on a wet day does not do this beautiful tree justice!





Chapel Square

Sadly the rain hadn’t relented by the time we reached the Chapel Square but the flowers here and the cafe raised our spirits!

Palm trees, Bougainvillea

Palm trees and Bougainvillea

This area has many fine palm trees as indeed has most of the island.

In spite of the rain the colour from Bougainvillea, Senna, Solanum, Begonia, Salvia and many colourful foliage plants looked tremendous.

The chapel is a very attractive looking building which is more than can be said for the austere looking mansion house.


Chapel, Cycads

Old Cycads by the chapel


In front of the chapel there were some very fine old Cycad plants in very good condition. These slow growing and very ancient plants are survivors from the age of dinosaurs. At least their ancestors are!

A plant covering a wall, Ficus pumila

Ficus pumila

Walls in this area are covered by a small leaf fig. This is Ficus pumila and a plant that I had previously seen used in this way in Rio de Janeiro. However, I hear that it is successfully growing in London and presumable benefiting from the ‘heat island’ effect.



a garden pool filled with plants

Formal pool

A garden and pots

The Chapel Garden

Avenue of Palms

In a narrow terrace in front of the mansion house there is an avenue of palm trees. This gives a real exotic feel to the garden.

Climbing plants on a house

The south front

This south facing garden has many climbing plants most of which are clinging to the south facing facade of the house.

The effect is spectacular even on a rainy day!

Bougainvillea and Solanum jasminoides cover the mansion house front to the first floor level.







Notable trees

Of the many trees at Isola Madre Island Garden several really grabbed my attention.

soft pine needles

Pinus montezumae Hartwegii


Montezuma’s pine [Pinus montezumae Hartwegii] pops up all over the place in the garden. Normally regarded as not fully hardy, this Mexican pine tree has the longest needles of all pines. Its needles are also in clusters of 5 needles and the needle count is extremely useful for identifying pines.




Camphor tree, Cinnamomum camphora

Cinnamomum camphora



Close to caged exotic birds there is a huge camphor tree [Cinnamomum camphora]. I had previously only seen trees of this species as large as this in the world famous Kirstenbosch Arboretum in Cape Town, South Africa.






Would I return to the garden again? I certainly would!

I’d hope for dry weather next time and I would probably visit in late winter or spring when the masses of Rhododendron, Azalea and Camellia  are in bloom.

I’d also love to see those giant Magnolia trees in bloom!

Incidentally, the house has a remarkable collection of puppets on display and if that interest you then it is well worth seeing.




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