The Getty Villa gardens

The ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried when Mt Vesuvius erupted in AD79, clearly made an impression on 19-year-old American J Paul Getty, soon to become an oil tycoon, when he visited Italy in 1912.

Almost 60 years later he built a museum at Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles to display his collection of antiquities – a replica Roman villa, right down to the gardens.

The outer peristyle garden – a peristyle is a covered walkway. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The 6000 square metre villa has four gardens, each featuring, as far as possible, plants that would have been available to a Roman gardener.

The outer peristyle garden is designed to impress visitors – 1.6km of clipped box hedging, a 67m pool, two rows of standard bay laurels and Damask roses. This garden is on top of a parking building with only 46cm of soil depth so anything needing a deeper root run is grown in pots.

The large European fan palms at the ocean end of the garden were 75 years old when transplanted here in the 1970s.

The outer peristyle garden has 1.6km of clipped box hedging. Photo: Sandra Simpson

An iris blooms in a bed of Achillea tomentosa Maynard’s Gold (woolly yarrow) – according to the ‘Iliad’, the Greeks used yarrow leaves to staunch bleeding on the battlefield. Photo: Sandra Simpson

As well as herbs, vegetables and fruit, the kitchen garden includes plants that do double duty. Olives, for instance, made cooking oil, medicine, cosmetics and lamp fuel; pomegranates were used for dye (flowers), scenting rooms (leaves) and tanning (fruit skins); and myrtle (Myrtus communis Boetica) for fragrant smoke (leaves), “ink” (seeds) and hair dye (berries and leaves).

Myrtle (Myrtus communis Boetica). Photo: Sandra Simpson

The inner peristyle garden (central courtyard) has a green and pastel colour scheme, while the private east garden includes a water feature, mosaic grotto and seating. A stroll here reveals butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus, the little ‘knobs’ on the leaves made them useful for cleaning), holly (Ilex aquifolium) and potted strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo).

The strawberry tree is a distant relative of the pieris. The striking fruit turns from yellow to orange to red but despite its bright colour is said to have a bland taste. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Mr Getty loved sycamores so this garden has Platanus acerifolia Columbia – but when the villa opened in 1974 he was in England and no longer travelling, dying two years later without having ever stood in his Roman garden.

  • Admission is free to the Getty Villa, parking $US15 (if you visit the villa and the Getty Centre in one day there is only one parking charge). The villa can be reached by public transport and offers free guided tours of the garden.

This article was first published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission.


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