Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mediterranean thistle

Few plants of the Sicilian countryside bloom in autumn, but the Mediterranean thistle is a unique and attractive exception. This stemless plant produces a single strikingly beautiful flower head 1.5 to 3 in (4 to 8 cm) in diameter at ground level in September or October after the rosette of prickly, divided leaves have dried. The large root of this thistle is toxic if eaten, but a thick resinous liquid extracted from it has commercial uses. Grows in open, sunny roadsides and borders of pastures and cultivated fields, most common on dry alkaline soils.

Scientific name: Atractylis gummifera, syn. Carlina gummifera
Italian common name: Masticogna laticifera
English common name: Mediterranean or Pine thistle

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tree of heaven

Originally imported from China to England in the mid-18th century, this fast growing, aggressive and invasive tree is now naturalized over much of southern Europe, Canada and North America. It grows in dense stands of slender saplings or as a single specimen to 40 ft(12 m) tall. When bruised or crushed the leaves and flowers of male trees have a strong, unpleasant odor. Female trees bear thousands of winged seedpods in large clusters and turn an attractive reddish brown color in late summer. The tropical looking foliage is shed in autumn and the tree is leafless over winter. Tree of heaven is short lived and the wood is brittle but sprouts grow vigorously from the roots and stump. Once established this species is very difficult to eradicate. Grows along roadsides and disturbed or abandoned areas.

Scientific name: Ailanthus altissima
Italian common name: Ailanto, Albero del paradiso
English common name: Tree of heaven

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Treasured by humans for culinary seasonings and garnishes since ancient times, capers are the immature flower buds of a tough, drought tolerant shrub that is native to the Mediterranean region. This dense, scrambling or sprawling perennial bush may grow to as much as 5 ft (1.5 m) tall with an even greater spread. Solitary, 4-petaled white to pinkish flowers with long slender stamens open over a long period from spring into summer among thick rounded leaves. The stems may be spiny or unarmed. After harvest, the flower buds are preserved in granular salt or pickled in vinegar. Grows cascading or hanging from cracks and crevices in stone walls, boulders, and rock outcroppings with full sun exposure and in nutrient poor, fast draining soils of road embankments.

Scientific name: Capparis spinosa
Italian common name: Cappero comune
English common name: Caper

Wild teasel

From mid-summer and throughout winter this herbaceous native with erect, prickly and hollow stems to 6 ft (2 m) tall and large seed heads is a conspicuous plant in the Sicilian countryside. The dark pink flowers attract bees and the seed heads that follow are a food source for some birds. Once used as a natural comb for raising the nap on fabrics, especially wool, the mature seed heads are now a favorite decorative element in dried flower arrangements. Grows in sunny, uncultivated fields and woodland clearings, open borders of cultivated land and roadsides.

Scientific name: Dipsacus
Italian common name: Cardo dei lanaioli
English common name: Wild teasel


Gangi, a hill town in the province of Palermo, is famous for its celebration of the summer wheat harvest. This 10-day festival that attracts spectators from all over Sicily and beyond includes:

- traditional folkloric dances, ('La Cordella' and others) performed by Gangi and Castellana Sicula dance groups
- special children's dance programs and music shows

-a procession to the Santuario dello Spirito Santo, celebration of mass, blessings and distribution of the special bread 'Pane di Burgisi'

-nightly concerts with traditional, popular and classical music programs and comedy plays

-agricultural meetings and tasting of local food products

-a final day parade with reenactment of ancient myths, musical and dance groups, examples of traditional rural culture and sleds pulled by oxen

Friday, August 7, 2009

Queen Anne's lace

With dainty circular clusters of tiny white flowers, Queen Anne's lace is one of the leading characters in Sicily's summer wildflower display. A single red flower sometimes seen at the center of the flat bloom head serves to attract pollinating insects. As the flower cluster matures and produces seeds, it rolls inward to form a rounded, tan-colored 'bird's nest' shape. This wild ancestor of the cultivated carrot, classed as a variable biennial, has slender, erect and hairy stems 1.5 to 3 ft (0.5 to 1 m) tall and a large taproot that smells like a carrot.

Scientific name: Daucus carota
Italian common name: Carota selvatica
English common name: Queen Anne's lace, Wild carrot