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