top of page



One of the nursery greenhouses

Vivai Cuba

and the

Mother Plant Garden

Photographs of Cristina Archinto
Text Carla De Agostini

Thirty years ago Mariolina's mother used to say to her husband 'but who would buy all these thorns?' Fortunately, the answer was not long in coming and today Vivai Cuba in Fontane Bianche, near Syracuse, stands out as one of the richest succulent nurseries in Europe. Here they grow plants from their own seeds, both in pots and in the field, supply plants to wholesalers, retailers, architects, landscape architects, garden designers, interior designers and event organisers at an international level. All this within a framework of protection and respect for water, increasingly important in these years, and with attention to the circumstances of a rapidly changing planet. 


The Mother Plant Garden inside the nursery

A unique place, not only the greenhouses but also the garden, Vivai Cuba was born in the 1960s out of the passion for roses and bulbs, which then flowed into strelitzias, kenzie, cycads and palms of lawyer Antonio Palermo, Mariolina's father. The story of this place begins with Antonio getting in touch with a Dutch bulb company, with whom the collaboration became more and more intense, until the families became friends. After a while, the father gave up flowers in the 1970s and was among the first to buy and sow Euphorbia, Agave, Aloe, Dasilirion and Yucca plants, gradually expanding the varieties of succulents cultivated. 


Agave area

In the meantime, love blossoms between the two partners' children, Mariolina and Pieter, and together they begin seed procurement trips around the world. The young people begin to specialise more and more in cactus cultivation and are won over by the larger specimens, over time creating a unique collection of succulents that are ideal for low-water garden projects. These include non-traditional trees such as Moringa, Chorisia, Bombax, Brachychiton and Dracaena Draco.


On the left a flowering specimen of Dasylirion, on the right Kigelia africana

In the nursery, all these specimens can be seen in the Mother Plant Garden, an 'exhibition space' where it is possible to study allochthonous plants that grow outdoors and adapt to become almost native species. Seeds and cuttings of the plants considered most interesting for nursery production are also collected here. 


The Mother Plant Garden with the Sapindus mukorossi tree on the right

The Mother Plant Garden is also a diverse reservoir of already existing species and new varieties derived from spontaneous crosses. A very interesting plant is Sapindus mukorossi, the soap nut tree, native to India. With a high saponin content, says Mariolina, the peel is an excellent organic detergent, which can be used instead of commercial products, both for laundry hygiene and for personal care! The tree is also beautiful from an ornamental point of view and is cultivated in Italy in only a few places. Walking around you can also come across a beautiful specimen of Euphorbia tirucalli, which resembles a coral, also known as 'sticks on fire' or 'red pencil tree'. It is a very decorative plant: it consists of long, soft, cylindrical stems, completely smooth with colouring that starts in light green and ends in a very striking orange-red at the tips. 

Stenocereus thurberi

Euphorbia flowers among the thorns of the Stenocereus thurberi cactus

The scenery one encounters while strolling through this garden alternates the physical bearing of large specimens with the softness of thinner plants, the colours flowing indifferently from the largest to the smallest and most insidious thorns. One only has to look around to be amazed by the violent lines of the cacti that suddenly become flowers, evoking not prickly emotions but rather delicate sensations. 


Euphorbia tirucalli

The family recounts that these mother plants are the foundations for the very life of Cuba Nurseries: they have individual stories that intersect with personal adventures, with time forged by the weather of the place and people, through generations. They are part of a past that at the same time tells of the present and future of a garden that represents an increasingly arid and globalised planet. Here, research and collaboration combined with great care give rise to a rich diversity of succulent plants and an incomparable landscape, creating an unprecedented ecosystem that encompasses all the continents in just a few hectares. 


Young specimens of Echinocactus including the first flowering specimen

After a tour of the garden, Mariolina allows visitors to browse through the greenhouses with the most diverse varieties of cacti, lined up like diligent toy soldiers, almost as if looking at an abstract work of art. A marvel. Here one can also observe the phenomenon of 'synchronous flowering': when one cactus flowers, all the others around it do so at the same time. This strategic choice constitutes a common 'fitness' advantage: when more plants flower at the same time, more mates arrive and consequently more mating opportunities are available for the individual plants. This also occurs due to adverse climatic conditions, the stressed seedling flourishes in such a way as to increase its species' chance of survival. The stress suffered by one is also communicated, via chemical components, to the others, which follow suit and flower at the same time. Nature's magic.


Synchronous flowering phenomenon

In conclusion, with the intention of spreading a culture of xerophilous plants, i.e. those adapted to live in environments characterised by long periods of drought or arid climates, Vivai Cuba has succeeded in creating a wonderful and varied succulent garden, unique and unrepeatable, where anyone can look and learn from the greatest teachers of the earth the values of adaptability, resilience and sustainability.

Adenium multiflorum

Adenium multiflorum also known as  Impala lily



Official site





Inside the Cuba Nurseries is Helena Medrano's atelier, a textile herbarium inspired by the essential forms of the natural elements that surround it. In the enormous Syracuse garden of succulent and exotic plants, Helena arrived eleven years ago, driven by continuous artistic research. Here, the cultural and botanical wealth that surrounds her led her two years ago to the conception of design objects created with plants, then to the realisation of the Fuga in Sicily project. In her workshop, she creates tapestries and tablecloths using the monotype technique: on natural fabrics, mainly hemp, linen or cotton, she chooses the plant or leaf, covers it with ink, then with the press transfers the plant design to the fabric or piece of paper she wishes to produce. In her atelier, objects and materials are exclusively vegetable: the weave of the fabric and the direct printing technique of the plant give a feeling of elegance and simplicity as only natural things can do, and the design pieces are unique and original. Among his creations are cushions made of an antique hemp from 1930, printed directly using Kentia leaves in their characteristic green colour. In this journey out of the ordinary, Helena continues to experiment with plants: art and botany are intertwined, in something always new, such as tiaras or succulent bouquets, tailored to the wishes of future brides. 


More botanic gardens and nurseries

bottom of page