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Floral paradise blossoms on Brissago islands

The botanical gardens are located on the only Swiss islands south of the Alps.

(Ticino Tourism)

If they were a few hundred metres further south, the Brissago Islands on Lake Maggiore would belong to Italy and Switzerland would be deprived of a subtropical paradise.

The two islands are home to the country's most southerly botanical gardens with 1,600 different plant species from five continents.

They benefit from ideal growing conditions, thanks to a Mediterranean microclimate which prevails over Lake Maggiore.

"The Alps to the north protect the islands from cold northern air," head gardener Fiorenzo Risi says.

"And so we benefit from the subtropical Mediterranean conditions that sweep up from Genoa and Venice all the way to the Lombardy Lakes, including Lake Maggiore."

Symphony of scents

Risi places the leaf of a Mediterranean plant in my hand. It gives off a distinct curry-like smell.

His colleague, Pamela Merlini, says the botanical gardens, which are located on the larger of the two islands, are not only a feast for the eyes but a symphony of scents as well.

"The nice thing is that you can walk around with your eyes closed and smell the eucalyptus, lavender, lemon and curry," she says.

As Risi trims a few shaggy branches off a camellia tree, Merlini points out that we are standing under a giant, 32-metre-high Eucalyptus.

It was the first Eucalyptus planted by the late 19th century owner of the island, the wealthy Russian baroness, Antonietta Saint-Léger.

"They say that this Eucalyptus was planted by the baroness because her husband always brought seeds back from his journeys and she was fond of exotic trees, plants and flowers."

Exotic women

More than exotic flora, the baroness brought colourful characters to the islands - writers, composers and artists.

In the 1920s, she sold the islands to a rich German businessman, Max Emden, who populated the place with his favourite species - exotic, beautiful women.

Statues in their honour are whimsically planted amid the gardens and stand in the grand villa Emden built.

Top draw

The islands became publicly owned in 1950, and since then have become one of canton Ticino's top tourist attractions.

Visitors are drawn by the picturesque lake and mountain setting and the surprising diversity of plant life on an island measuring only 2.5 hectares.

Risi leads me back to the exposed tip of the island to show me South Africa's national flower, the Protea.

"This is the most northerly place it can grow out of doors," boasts Risi, "and this exact place is the hottest part of the gardens in summer and the coldest in winter."

Survival strategy

A few steps further along the path we come to Australia and a flowering Grevillea Juniperina shrub native to New South Wales.

"It normally blooms in December in Australia but it has adapted itself to the northern hemisphere and flowers during our summer," Risi says.

Risi adds that it is an excellent example of the minimalist survival strategy many plants have developed. The tiny red flowers display no decorative petals, only the stamens and pistils necessary for reproduction.

As we continue our stroll, we pass through a dense bamboo thicket, including stands of black bamboo, and a collection of palms from the rare Chilean coconut palm to the blue palm.

The island's grapefruit, orange, lemon and other citrus trees bear fruit throughout the year. Citrus fruits are the focus of this year's special exhibition on the island, "Golden Apples", which explores the importance of citrus fruit in art and science.

To compliment the exhibition, the island restaurant is serving up special "citrus" dishes.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

Key facts

They are Switzerland's only islands on the southern side of the Alps.
The islands are most easily reached in 15 minutes by boat from canton Ticino's lakeside resort of Ascona.
They are open to the public every day from March through October.
The Lake Maggiore tourist board can arrange guided tours in English with advance notice.

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