1885-1927: St. Leger Islands
In 1885, Richard and Antoinette Fleming St. Leger purchased the Islands of Brissago, which, at that time, were covered by a sparse indigenous vegetation and were home to the remains of a convent. After restoring the convent the St. Legers initiated the creation of the garden. They brought good soil and dung, built paths and planted subtropical plant species.
In 1897 Richard Fleming abandoned both the Islands and his wife and moved to Naples. After the first world war Madame was plagued by debts and her situation became so precarious that, in 1927, she had no choice but to sell the property. First she moved to Ascona and then to Intragna where she survived on welfare benefits up to the time of her death on 24 January 1948. On 12 August 1972, her remains were transferred to the Isola Grande.
1928-1949: Max Emden
However, we have him to thank for the creation of the palatial residence that overlooks the blue expanse of the lake from the highest point of the Isola Grande. Erected on the site of the convent, the splendid palazzo was built with the noblest of materials, from the white Carrara marble of the Sala degli specchi (Hall of Mirrors) and the staircases, to the inlaid Florentine floor of the Sala Rossa (Red Room). Also much to his credit is the fact that Max Emden made very few alterations to the vegetation and the layout of the gardens. Architects ensured that the splendor of the building equaled the splendor of the surrounding garden.
Max Emden stayed on the islands until 1940, when he died in a clinic in Locarno.
From 1950: The Botanical garden of Canton Ticino
In 1949 the Cantonal government received an offer from Emden’s heirs, who wished to sell the Islands. The Cantonal Government, the lakeside municipalities of Ascona, Brissago and Ronco sopra Ascona, the Swiss League for the protection of the national heritage (today Swiss Heimatschutz), and the nature conservation league (today as Pro Natura) purchased the Islands and the house.
The far-sighted conditions of the contract, signed on the 2 September 1949, state that “the Islands and the building may be used solely for its conservation as a natural beauty spot to be opened to the public, and for cultural, scientific and tourism related activities.”
On Palm Sunday morning, 2 April 1950, the Botanical Garden of the Islands of Brissago were opened to the public.