Monday, December 29, 2008

Old man's beard

In autumn this vigorous perennial vine loses its 3 to 5 parted leaves, but the seed heads with their attractive, feathery white plumes persist longer, into winter. The faintly fragrant white to greenish-white flowers from which the seed heads grow make quite a show in spring and summer. These flowers have no true petals, just 4 sepals and a crowed mass of stamens and pistils, the reproductive organs of the plant. The fast-growing, woody stems of Old man's beard creates a dense foliage mass that can overwhelm the understory tree or shrub that support them. In some areas where it is adapted this plant is considered a noxious weed. Here in Sicily it may be seen climbing into woodland trees, and over small trees and shrubs of the maquis vegetation type.

Scientific name: Clematis vitalba
Italian common name: Clematide vitalba
English common name: Old man's beard

Friday, December 19, 2008

European Juno Iris

A native Sicilian iris that flowers in December? As a matter of fact, yes. This species is dwarf (to 15 cm. or 6 in. tall), grows from a bulb rather than a rhizome, and has fleshy storage roots. It's often found growing on sunny, rocky hillsides and slopes at mid-elevation locations. This is the only European representative of the Juno iris type. At this time of year the lovely flowers are displayed against arching, sickle-shaped, glossy green leaves. Don't search for the plant in summer. It passes that hot dry season in a dormant, leafless state.

Scientific name: Iris planifolia
Italian common name: Giaggiolo bulboso
English common name: European Juno iris

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Butcher's broom

Butcher's broom is a low evergreen shrub with stiff, erect stems and short side branches. What appear to be bright green, glossy, spine-tipped leaves are simply flattened extensions of the branches and they are properly termed 'cladodes'. In spring, a small, solitary greenish-white flower grows from the center of the cladode. Each plant produces only male or female flowers. Plants bearing female flowers develop rounded fruits that turn bright red in Fall and persist on the shrub throughout winter. Shady country roadsides and dense woodlands are favored habits. During December, sidewalk vendors in Palermo's city center sell cut branches of this native shrub for holiday decorations. Butchers once cut branches of this plant and tied them in a bundle to make a broom. Hence the common name in English. Pungitopo, the Italian common name, refers to the household use, in bygone times, of cut branches around the pantry to discourage mice.

Scientific name: Ruscus aculeatus
Italian common name: Pungitopo
English common name: Butcher's broom

Monday, December 1, 2008


This small, fine-textured shrub with attractive red berries in autumn looks harmless enough. Like most other plants native to the island, Osyris contains chlorophyll and uses the energy of the sun for photosynthesis. However, it also invades the roots of nearby host plants to extract water and nutrients. In the Sicilian maquis, where soil moisture and nutrients are often in limited supply, this growth characteristic has significant survival value. Plant scientists classify such a plant as a 'semi-parasite'. Small, yellowish, honey-scented flowers that open in spring are male or female. Female flowers give way to one-seeded fruits that turn bright red in Fall.

Scientific name: Osyris alba
Italian common name: Ginestrella comune
English common name: Osyris

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Strawberry tree

Colorful yellow to orange-red and scarlet fruits in autumn make Strawberry tree one of the showiest of small evergreen trees or shrubs native to Sicily. Edible yellowish pulp with many tiny seeds lies beneath the rough textured strawberry-like skin of mature red berries. The slightly sweet taste of these decorative fruits and their mealy texture appeals mainly to local birds. At the same time that the current season's fruits ripen, small, white to greenish white, bell-shaped flowers open in drooping clusters. These give rise to fruits that mature the following autumn. Strawberry tree has attractive, reddish brown, shredding bark and dark green, leathery leaves with red stems. Because of its highly ornamental character, Strawberry tree is grown both as a container and landscape garden plant.

Scientific name: Arbutus unedo
Italian common name: Corbezzolo
English common name: Strawberry tree

Saturday, November 15, 2008

English hawthorn

In autumn, English hawthorn makes a breathtaking show of color with bright red fruits that decorate its branches against the background of a sapphire blue Sicilian sky. These small apple-like fruits which contain 2 or 3 seeds, have long been used in traditional medicines. They develop from clusters of white flowers that open in Spring. English hawthorn grows as a small thorny tree, often branching from the lower trunk, or as a shrub, depending on growing conditions.

Scientific name: Crataegus laevigata (C. oxycantha)
Italian common name: Biancospino selvatico
English common name: English hawthorn

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Wild pear

In Spring, wild pear trees are transformed into floating white clouds by the flowers that crowd their thorny branches. This is one of the Noble Hardwoods of Europe and its fine grained wood is considered ideal for wood wind instruments. Wild pear is seldom abundant in the Sicilian countryside, but isolated specimens grow along roadsides and borders of pastures and woodlands. The tree is deciduous, losing its leaves in mid-to-late autumn. Small, hard fruits that ripen to a brownish color about the same time or a little earlier, are inedible.

Scientific name: Pyrus pyraster
Italian common name: Pero selvatico
English common name: Wild pear

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Dog rose

At this time plant taxonomists recognize 16 species of native Sicilian roses. Dog rose, a thorny shrub with white to pink 5-petaled flowers in spring and summer, is one of the most common. In autumn, the blooms are followed by a dazzling and long-lasting display of bright red seed pods or 'hips'. Rose hips are an edible, rich source of Vitamin C but quite tart if eaten raw. However, they are often prepared as jellies, jams, syrups, soups, seasonings and tea, as well as a wide range of homeopathic remedies. Harvest ripe rose hips after a good cold snap makes them slightly soft, from plants that have not been treated with pesticides. Slice pods open to remove the seeds which are covered with a lining of irritating hairs and rinse fleshy parts of the pod before use.
Scientific name: Rosa canina
Italian common name: Rosa selvatica comune
English common name: Dog rose

Friday, October 24, 2008

Prickly pear

In Sicily this large-growing, usually thornless cactus is cultivated for its abundant crop of fruit. It's also an aggressive invader of dry, sunny natural areas. Prickly pear is not a native Sicilian plant. However, growing conditions here are so well matched to its needs that this cactus can now be found wild or a garden plant over most of the island. When ripe, the purple or yellowish flesh of the fruit or 'tuna' is edible and sweet, but the small hard seeds that are densely packed in the fruit pulp may be a problem for people with gastrointestinal sensitivity. Besides being eaten raw, Prickly pear fruits are made into jams and jellies, and the Sicilian province of Enna produces a Prickly pear flavored liqueur called 'Ficodi'. Wear gloves when peeling Prickly pear fruits or handle them with tongs or a newspaper to avoid the clusters of tiny, sharp bristles that dot their surface.

Scientific name: Opuntia ficus-indica
Italian common name: Fico d'India
English common name: Prickly pear (India fig)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Service tree

This interesting and attractive native tree of the Sicilian countryside is especially impressive in Autumn when showy clusters of orange-pink fruits decorate its branch tips. Resist the temptation to take a nibble of the fruits. They're usually astringent and mouth-puckering at this stage. However, when stored in a cool dry place until they almost begin to rot, the fruits become sweet and delectable to human taste buds. Even during the winter leafless period, Service tree has a stately, distinctive appearance. It is not abundant in nature, and rarely available in plant nurseries on the island.

Scientific name: Sorbus domestica
Italian common name: Sorbo domestico
English common name: Service tree

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Gladwin iris

Early summer flowers of the Gladwin iris are perhaps best described as 'interesting' rather than beautiful, but in Fall big seed capsules open to reveal showy orange-red berries. These are quite striking and longlasting whether left on the plant or added to dried flower arrangements in the home.

Scientific name: Iris foetidissima
Italian common name: Giaggiolo puzzolente
English common name: Gladwin iris

Monday, October 6, 2008

Mystery Stone Wheel

One late summer morning we discovered an ancient stone wheel on a stream bank beside The Laurel Nature Trail. This heavy wheel measuring 19.5 in. (50 cm.) in diameter and 9 in. (23 cm.) thick lies at least a half kilometer away from the Abbey. What was its purpose? Maybe a millstone for grinding grain? 'No' say local amateur archeologists. The plan now is to move the wheel up a steep stream bank with as little damage as possible to the native vegetation. Our hope is that when the wheel can be examined carefully and up close, someone may solve the riddle of how it was used.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Yellow autumn crocus

At Gangivecchio, the autumn-winter show of native flowering bulbs gets underway with a display of warm, glowing Yellow autumn crocus blooms. Growing to 8 in. (20 cm.) tall, this small perennial bulb has slender, dark green, waxy leaves. Flowering plants may appear as singles or in clusters of 10 or more scattered through sunny areas or in light shade. Although its flowers resemble those of the crocus, this plant is actually more closely related to Narcissus.

Scientific name: Sternbergia lutea
Italian common name: Zafferanastro giallo
English common name: Yellow autumn crocus

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

False yellowhead

Adding a note of fall color to the countryside with small, bright yellow daisy-like flowers, False yellowhead is a common perennial in this region and throughout the Mediterranean basin on disturbed sites, in abandoned pastures and along roadsides. The plant's upright stems are woody at the base becoming herbaceous above. Both stems and leaves are covered with sticky hairs that may cause contact dermatitis in sensitive humans.

Scientific name: Inula viscosa, syn. Dittrichia viscosa
Italian common name: Enula cepittoni
English common name: False yellowhead, Sticky fleabane

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


In our Gangivecchio hazelnut groves the 2008 crop has matured and the ground is now literally carpeted with brown nuts. The hazelnut grows as a small spreading tree or a large clump-forming shrub. Its seeds or 'nuts' develop singly or in clusters of as many as five. Each nut is partly enclosed in a short leafy husk until autumn when it matures and falls to the ground. Hazelnut kernels are rich in unsaturated fats and protein and they supply vitamin B6 and thiamine as well. The nuts are eaten raw or roasted, in confections like cookies and cakes, and candies, especially in combination with chocolate. Other uses include a hazelnut vodka liqueur (Frangelico) and a flavoring for coffee. It happens that our local, ground dwelling porcupines also have a passion for hazelnuts, and at this time of year these nocturnal animals make regular nightly forays into the groves to feast on fallen nuts.
Scientific name: Corylus avellana
Italian common name: Nocciolo comune
English common name: Hazelnut

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sicilian Donkey

The donkeys in this photo live on a farm just down the road from Gangivecchio. Their ancestors were domesticated in Egypt about 6000 years ago. In Sicily the donkey was once an important farm animal, valued for its ability to carry or pull heavy loads and work long hours. By nature, these animals are intelligent, curious and playful. The milk of the female donkey contains more sugar and protein than cow's milk and it was once considered highly beneficial for babies and people in poor health.
Scientific name: Equus asinus
Italian common name: L'asino Siciliano
English common name: Sicilian Donkey

Sunday, September 14, 2008


In ancient times, this perennial herb which is a common plant of the Sicilian countryside was thought to have strange mystical and medical properties. It was widely used by magicians, witches and sorcerers in both black and white magic rituals. In late summer and early autumn a cluster of violet colored flowers develops from the center of the rosette of flat green leaves. Autumn mandrake is a poisonous plant and all of its parts contain powerful chemicals that may cause serious illness or death if eaten.

Scientific common name: Mandragora autumnalis
Italian common name: Mandragora
English common name: Autumn Mandrake

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


With its hillside oak woodlands, grassy slopes and dense blackberry thickets, Gangivecchio offers excellent habitat for this small brightly colored tortoise. In early morning and late afternoon Hermann's tortoise forages for plant leaves, flowers, seed pods and fruit. During the heat of midday it rests in its nighttime den, usually found beneath heavy vegetative cover. Hermann's tortoise may hibernate for 4 or 5 months during the mild Mediterranean winter and some individuals are believed to live for 70 to 100 years.

Scientific name: Testudo hermanni
Italian common name: Tartaruga di terra
English common name: Hermann's tortoise

Friday, September 5, 2008

Fig Season

The enormous old fig trees that shade Gangivecchio abbey courtyards are now providing an extravagant harvest of sweet juicy fruits. Figs are eaten fresh or dried and they are used in a variety of Italian dishes from antipasto to dolce. Besides their nutritional value as sources of calcium and fiber figs contain vitamins A and C. Figs are believed to predate even wheat as a crop for human use. The Egyptians were cultivating this tree for its fruit in 4000 BC.
Scientific name: Ficus carica
Italian common name: Fico commune
English common name: Common Fig

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Nature Trail

A recent addition to the distinctive character of Gangivecchio is a one-kilometer long nature trail known as "Il Sentiero Dell'Alloro" in Italian or "The Laurel Trail" for English Speakers. This trail follows a clear, spring-fed stream through woodlands rich in native plant species. It is a perfect place to experience something of Sicily's complex natural hertiage, do a bit of bird watching, or simply enjoy nature in a tranquil sanctuary of great beauty. Guided tours are available for small groups.

Friday, August 22, 2008


In late summer clusters of ripe blackberries are a common sight on bushes growing in dense thickets along local roads and in pasture lands. These blackberries may not be as juicy as some from other regions but the flavor is excellent and the fruits are eaten fresh or cooked to make jam or jelly. Arching, thorny blackberry stems or 'canes' grow to full length in one season and develop white to pink flowers followed by purple-black fruit the following summer.

Scientific name: Rubus caesius
Italian common name: Rovo bluastro
English common name: Blackberry

Friday, August 15, 2008

Field Horsetail

This feathery perennial grows in dense drifts along shady banks of the stream at Gangivecchio. Its slender, jointed stems are hollow, green and photosynthetic. Spores rather than seeds are produced at the stem tips. Chemicals derived from Field Horsetail are used in a wide variety of medicinal, nutritional and cosmetic products.

Scientific name: Equisetum arvense
Italian common name: Equiseto dei Campi
English common name: Field Horsetail

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Common Fennel

Sweetly scented and highly aromatic, with many culinary and medicinal uses. That's one way to describe this robust perennial we call fennel. The plant grows wild in great abundance locally. Its feathery, almost hair-like leaves have mostly fallen now, but tall slender fennel stems tipped with clusters of tiny yellow flowers and maturing seeds are still a familiar sight along sunny country roadsides and in pasture lands.

Scientific name: Foeniculum vulgare
Italian common name: Finocchio
English common name: Common Fennel

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Black Elder

Black elder trees at Gangivecchio are now heavily laden with clusters of purple-black berries. For some birds these are an important food source. When cooked, the fully ripe berries are used for making excellent jams and jellies and they are also made into wine, cordials and a number of traditional medicines.

Scientific name: Sambucus nigra
Italian common name: Sambuco
English common name: Black Elder

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Jack in the Pulpit

In spring this tuberous-rooted perennial displays a fleshy, erect flower stalk (spadix) partially enclosed by a sheath-like hood (spathe). At this dry time of year, a cluster of scarlet fruits crowded on a stem is all that remains of the plant above ground. These berries are conspicuous and attractive but are considered toxic to humans and to livestock.

Scientific name: Arum maculatum
Italian common name: Cigaro scuro
English common name: Jack in the Pulpit, Cuckoo-pint

Monday, July 21, 2008

Common Chicory

A native perennial noted for its showy, sky blue flowers, chicory leaves are harvested from the wild as well as from home gardens, for use as a bitter, spicy salad green and as an ingredient in a number of kitchen recipes. Large-rooted varieties are cultivated in Europe and elsewhere as a coffee substitute and additive. Each day during the bloom period, all flowers open promptly in early morning and close en masse in late afternoon.

Scientific name: Cichorium intybus
Italian common name: Cicoria
English common name: Common chicory

Wild Teasel

From mid-summer and throughout winter the large seed heads of this tall herbaceous native add considerable drama to the local countryside. The dark pink flowers of teasel 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 head is now a favorite for dried flower arrangements.

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

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Mille grazie !

Thank you University of Arizona Plant Science summer interns Claire Heinitz and Janon Al Failakawi for your excellent work on the Gangivecchio Nature Trail, the organic vegetable garden and plant care throughout the project !


This small spiny animal is a nocturnal visitor to Gangivecchio where it is welcomed for its role in garden pest control. Although officially classed as an insectivore it eats many other things--including pet food. Hedgehogs are native only to the Old World and they have changed little over the last 15 million years.
Scientific name: Erinaceus europaeus
Italian common name: Riccio
English common name: Hedgehog

Friday, June 13, 2008

Nature Trail

Two University of Arizona Plant Science interns, Claire Heinitz and Janon Al Failakawi, helping to create our nature trail.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Wild Gladiolus

An erect stem bearing 5 to 15 dainty pink flowers make this wild gladiolus one of the most striking of spring flowering bulbs. Although not abundant locally, one to several plants may be found growing in open, sunny locations or in shady oak woodlands.

Scientific name: Gladiolus italicus
Italian common name: Gladiolo del Campi
English common name: Italian Gladiolus

Italian Viper's Bugloss

The dense, pyramidal "Christmas tree" shape and the unique fuzzy texture of this native herb set it apart from other spring vegetation. Small white flowers appear as Viperina matures at a height of 0.5 to 1 m.

Scientific name: Echium italicum
Italian common name: Viperina bianca
English common name: Italian Viper's Bugloss

Red Valerian

At Gangivecchio, conditions have been ideal this spring for a generous and extended flowering of Red Valerian. It's commonly seen along roadsides and sunny open areas, usually on poor dry soils. Because of its attractive, long-lasting blooms, some gardeners grow this plant as a cut flower.

Scientific name: Centranthus ruber
Italian common name: Valeriana rossa
English common name: Red Valerian

Gladwin Iris

The tan and pale bluish flowers are unusual for an iris but the shape of the leaves suggest the genus identity. Each bloom develops a large pod which opens in fall to reveal colorful, long-lasting orange red seeds.

Scientific name: Iris foetidissima

Italian common name: Giaggiolo Puzzolente

English common name: Gladwin Iris

Bear's Breech

An erect spike of densely packed rose-pink and white flowers make this one of the most characteristic and elegant spring flowering plants of Gangivecchio. The luxurious clump of dark green foliage at the base is thought to be the architectural leaf motif used in Corinthian columns.

Scientific name: Acanthus mollis
Italian common name: Acanto
English common name: Bear's Breech

Tree Mallow

Big radiant pink flowers with purple streaked petals open generously and continuously to create an eye-catching spring show of color. Because of the intense pink floral display, this species is sometimes used in landscape beds and borders.

Scientific name: Lavatera thuringiaca
Italian common name: Malvone di Turingia
English common name: Tree Mallow