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

Red Valerian

Through spring into early summer, this showy native perennial displays dense clusters of small purple red to crimson or rarely white blooms along the upper stems. Much-branched and woody at the base, the plant grows 12 to 28 in (30 to 70 cm) tall. Red Valerian can be cultivated in the landscape, but it should be controlled to prevent spread into areas where it is not wanted. Grows on sunny roadsides, embankments and borders of fields and sometimes from old stone walls.

Scientific name: Centranthus ruber
Italian common name: Camarezza comune
English common name: Red Valerian

Monday, July 6, 2009

Current Activities

In this photo, Glenn Story, Associate Professor at Classics and Antropology, University of Iowa, and his assistant, Brian Horton, Penn State University, are looking over the long bones from Burial 6 of the 2005 test pit in the Abbey courtyard. They are trying to determine the minimum number of individuals in this very mixed-up burial context by counting human skeletal elements. Currently, Story believes the burial consists of all women and children, victims either of a natural disaster such as an earthquake, or perhaps of an epidemic. The burial dates to around A.D. 350, and despite the apparent haste of the depositry of bodies, time was taken to bury them with ceramic jugs and glass vessels.

Current Activities

In this photo, Amy Wood, graduate student in Landscape Architecture at the University of Arizona is gathering data in the Gangivecchio abbey courtyard in connection with her summer internship. This project will serve as the thesis for Amy's Master's degree program at the University of Arizona. Her final report will also provide a useful basis for future Gangivecchio applications for grant funds.

As part of this project, Amy will develop a Gangivecchio site analysis and inventory, a base map, proposed concepts, and a master plan as well as final recommendations.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Spanish broom

For several weeks in Spring and early Summer, sweetly scented, bright yellow flowers appear in clusters at the tips of upright or ascending green cylindrical stems of this shrub which grows 2-9 ft (60-300 cm) tall, depending on site conditions. The leaves are small, few in number, and present only for a brief time. For most of the year photosynthesis is performed by the spineless green stems. This greatly reduces the evaporative loss of water from the plant during long periods of dry weather. Grows on dry sunny slopes, roadsides and pastures.

Scientific name: Spartium junceum
Italian common name: Ginistra comune
English common name: Spanish broom

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Spiny broom

In spring, this densely branched, spiny shrub with 3-parted leaves is blanketed with masses of bright yellow flowers. It grows to 6 ft (2 m) tall, and may be seen as a single specimen, in small groups and often in large spreading colonies. Bacteria which form nodules on the roots of this Sicilian native fix atmospheric nitrogen for the host and nearby plants. Grows on dry, rocky slopes and hillsides with full sun exposure.

Scientific name: Calicotome villosa
Italian common name: Calicotome
English common name: Spiny broom

Mauritania grass

This tough, perennial Mediterranean grass may form clumps as much as 6 ft (2 m) tall and wide, although plants are smaller on less favorable sites. The long stalked flower plumes may extend 3 ft (1 m) above the foliage. In times past the slender, durable leaves were made into mattress stuffing and chair seats, rustic brooms and baskets, and short-lived torches. The leaves were also braided to make crude rope and fishing line and to fasten grape vines to their support. Housewives used the flower stalks for forming macaroni. Nowadays other materials are available for these needs and the grass is seldom collected to make artisanal products. Grows on sunny, rocky hillsides and is one of the first plants to appear after forest fire.

Scientific name: Ampelodesmos mauritanicus
Italian common name: Tagliamani
English common name: Mauritania grass

Friday, May 29, 2009

European elder

This small native tree creates quite a show in Spring with flat-topped clusters of tiny white flowers against a dense background of bright green leaves. The flowers are still occasionally used in simple rustic fritter and bread recipes. When fully ripe, the small, juicy, purple-black berries are made into jam and in times past they were considered effective prepared as a tradional medicine.

Scientific name: Sambucus nigra
Italian common name: Sambuco comune
English common name: European elder

Thursday, May 28, 2009


In spring the solitary orange-red flowers of Flanders Field poppies open on erect stems 8 to 24 in.(20 to 60 cm) tall. Some flowers of this species show a conspicuous black spot at the base of each of the four petals. The fiery splendor of great drifts of poppies in bloom is a favorite subject of landscape painters and photographers. They grow in sunny cultivated and uncultivated fields, pastures, stony slopes, roadsides and embankments.

Scientific name: Papaver rhoeas
Italian common name: Papavero comune
English common name: Flanders Field poppy

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Giant fennel

If we were to select a single native plant as a symbol of Sicily's spectacular spring flora it would surely be Giant fennel or Ferla. From a rosette of dark green, finely divided foliage Giant fennel sends up a thick, succulent bloom stalk to 6 ft. (2 m) tall in mid-spring. The rounded 3 in. (7.5 cm) clusters of bright yellow flowers that develop along the upper of this stem make a striking display of color and texture. Despite its similar appearance and common name, Giant fennel is not the true fennel of culinary fame. A simple identity test is to crush a small sample of the foliage. Giant fennel lacks the unmistakable sweet aromatic fragrance of edible fennel.

Scientific name: Ferula communis
Italian common name: Ferla, Ferula
English common name: Giant fennel

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Few plants of the Sicilian countryside match the colorful display of bright red flowers that clothe this low spreading herb in spring. Whether you see it as a roadside volunteer or cultivated in a pure stand covering scores of hectares the glowing crimson color of its blooms is an unforgettable sight. Since they offer a rich source of nectar the flower clusters are attractive to bees. In Sicily Sulla is cultivated as forage, silage or a hay crop for feeding sheep and cattle.

Scientific name: Hedysarum coronarium
Italian common name: Sulla
English common name: Italian sainfoin, French honeysuckle

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


A brilliant orange floral display makes this low, compact herb to 12 in. (30 cm) tall one of the showiest of spring wildflowers. Both the branching, square stems and the spirally arranged leaves are covered with fine hairs. The flowers close at night and open the next day with bright light. Grows in sunny roadsides, pastures and borders of cultivated fields.

Scientific name: Calendula suffruticosa
Italian common name: Fiorrancio fulgida
English common name: Calendula

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


One of the eye-catching wildflower beauties of spring in Sicily is Honeywort. The tubular yellow and purple flowers of this hardy annual open in nodding clusters on upright stems that begin branching near the base of the plant. Because of their generous nectar supply, the blooms are attractive to bees. Plant height varies from 8 to 20 in. (20 to 50 cm.) depending mostly on soil fertility. Grows in pastures and margins of cultivated fields, roadsides and open sunny places in woodlands.

Scientific name: Cerinthe major
Italian common name: Erba vaiola, Succiamele
English common name: Honeywort

Thursday, April 9, 2009


In late winter and early spring, pink and lavenderAnemone flowers add vibrant splashes of color to the awakening flora of the Sicilian countryside. The solitary blooms of this small tuberous rooted perennial open at the tips of slender stems that grow to a height of 8 in(20 cm) or more above leaves divided into 3 to 5 segments. Grows in open, sunny locations in cultivated fields, pastures, olive groves, woodland clearings and along roadsides.

Scientific name: Anemone hortensis
Italian common name: Flor-stella
English common name: Anemone

Monday, April 6, 2009


In spring, nodding clusters of intense blue star-shaped flowers with 5 triangular, pointed petals decorate the branch tBoldips of this annual herb. Borage leaves and stems are covered with bristly hairs and the flowers attract bees. The plant has various culinary and medicinal uses, and an oil is extracted from its seeds. Grows in borders of cultivated land, orchards and citrus groves, roadsides and uncultivated fields and pastures.

Scientific name: Borago officinalis
Italian common name: Borragine
English common name: Borage

Buttercup, Lesser celadine

From thickened underground tubers this low growing perennial developes a rosette of kidney-to heart-shaped leaves that are dark green, fleshy and lustrous. Each rosette sends up a single bright yellow flower made up of 8 or more glossy petals. Plants appear in late winter and spring, produce flowers and die back in a short time. Grows in sun or shade, in woodlands, orchards and borders of fields and pasture lands.

Scientific name: Ranunculus ficaria L.
Italian common name: Ranuncolo favagello
English common name: Buttercup, Lesser celadine

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Terrestrial orchid

The first and one of the showiest native terrestrial orchids to flower in Sicily is Richard's Barlia. In winter or early spring a cylindrical, upright spike bearing as many as 100 delicate rose-pink orchids speckled purple rises to as much as 16 in.(40 cm) above large waxy leaves. The plant grows from an oval shaped tuber or underground food storage organ. The species name of this orchid honors French botanist G.N. Robert.
Habit: Pastures, clearings in woodlands and arid Mediterranean scrub, on south slopes at higher elevations.

Scientific name: Himantoglossum robertianum
syn. Barlia robertianum
Italian common name: Barbone di Robert
English common name: Robert's Barlia

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Wood violet

Tiny, rich purple flowers that open in early spring above a clump of dense, low growing foliage are the special virtues of this small violet. Each bloom has 5 petals, with a noticeable spur at the base of the lower one. The soft, medium green leaves are heart-shaped with rounded teeth. This violet which spreads both by runners and seeds typically grows no more than 2 to 3 in. (5 to 7.5 cm) tall.
Habitat: woodlands and pastures in part shade to full sun

Scientific name: Viola riviniana
Italian common name: Viola di Rivinus
English common name: Wood violet

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Myrtle spurge

From late winter through spring this evergreen euphorbia adds bright colors to the Sicilian countryside with glowing chartreuse clusters of flowers. The plant forms a dense mound 1 to 2.5 ft. (30 to 75 cm) in diameter. Its large yellow flower heads open at the tips of branches that are crowded with spirals of stiff, pointed, gray-green leaves. As they mature, the color of bloom clusters change to an intense reddish pink. After flowering, the stems die back.
Habitat: Sunny rocky hillsides and along roadsides.

Scientific name: Euphorbia rigida
Italian common name: Euforbia rigida
English common name: Upright myrtle spurge

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Silver Wattle

In late winter, clusters of tiny pincushion flowers transform Silver Wattle into a dense free form mass of golden yellow color. The tree grows to as much as 30ft (9m) tall at maturity. Like many other Australian acacias, this evergreen species with fine-textured, feathery foliage is a popular landscape plant. It may also escape cultivation and grow wild in the Sicilian countryside. Throughout Italy, Mimosa or Silver Wattle is perhaps best known for the use of its cut branches heavy with flowers to commemorate the 'Festa Della Donne' (International Women's Day).

Scientific name: Acacia dealbata
Italian common name: Mimosa
English common name: Silver Wattle

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Cream narcissus

Clusters of showy flowers with an enticing fragrance are the special virtue of this native narcissus. First to appear are flat green leaves that grow from an underground bulb. The flowers--with their white waxy petals and a short yellow cup--open in bunches of 3 to 10 or more on erect cylindrical stems 12-20 in. (30-50 cm) in height. Depending on elevation and microclimate, flowering may take place anytime from November to March of the following year. This species is highly variable and many selections with different flower characteristics have been introduced into horticulture. They grow in open sunny pastures, cultivated fields and sunny roadside slopes.

Scientific name: Narcissus tazetta
Italian common name: Narciso nostrale
English common name: Cream narcissus

Friday, February 20, 2009

Almond tree

In late winter and early spring the almond tree is one of Sicily's first trees to signal the impending end of winter. Throughout the countryside thousands of almond trees are transformed into radiant pink or white clouds by 5-petaled flowers that open in pairs or singly along branches, before new leaves appear. Almonds are a close relative of the peach, and their fruits look something like small leathery peaches covered with fine, fuzzy hairs. Mature seeds or kernels of the almond may be sweet or bitter, depending on the type, but both kinds have many uses. This small to medium sized non-native tree with a rounded canopy was introduced into Italy and North Africa in ancient times. This tree is cultivated for commercial and home garden for almond production. It also grows wild on dry sunny hillsides, in fence rows and along roadsides.

Scientific name: Prunus dulcis
Italian common name: Mandorlo
English common name: Almond

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Snowy Sicily

Last week a snow storm with occasional hail and dense fog left a blanket of glistening white snow over much of the hill country of Sicily. At Gangivecchio (elev. 850 m) the falling snow melted for several hours before beginning to stick. When the storm finally ended, we measured 12 in. (30 cm) of snow on the abbey grounds. Landslides have temporarily cut highway access to the nearby towns of Castelbuono and Nicosia. The upside to recent rains and this snow storm is that springs in our area are flowing fast and strong with crystal clear, cold water.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Lichens are often ignored life forms in the Sicilian countryside. They are unique however, and in many respects fascinating components of nature. Among the more than 10,000 species are those that can endure extremes of drought, temperature and solar radiation. All lichens are composite organisms. Many kinds are made up of a fungus and a green alga. The fungus absorbs water and minerals from rain and dust in the air or from the surface on which the lichen grows. The green alga within the lichen is photosynthetic, and produces sugars for itself and for the fungus. Some lichen species thrive on bare rocks, clay tile roofs or other surfaces that have no soil. Lichens that are epiphytes grow on other plants, often tree trunks and branches. Epiphytic lichens are not parasites. Instead they use the host plant merely as an anchor or a means of support.

Scientific name: Lichens are classified according to the fungus species
Italian common name: Lichene
English common name: Lichen

Common polypody

This attractive woodland fern takes both its scientific and common names from the creeping, hairy rhizomes (underground horizontal stems) that grow in a spreading mat, near or at the soil surface. Fronds that are deeply divided into 10 to 18 pairs of leaflets appear at intervals along the rhizomes. On the bottom side of the fronds reproductive spores are produced in conspicuous oval spore cases.

Habitat: Wooded hillsides and stream banks, in rocky nooks and crannies, and at the base of trees in deep to dappled shade. Mid-to upper elevation zones.

Scientific name: Polypodium australe Fee
sin. Polypodium vulgare var. serrayum Willd.
Italian common name: Polypodio meridionale
English common name: Common polypody

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

African wood-sorrel

Native to South Africa, this highly invasive perennial plant has become a naturalized weed in many agricultural regions of the world. African wood-sorrel grows from a small bulb and the leaves that form a broad rosette of leaves at the base of the plant are divided into heart-shaped leaflets. Showy clusters of 5-petaled flowers develop on slender stalks. In Sicilian olive and citrus groves African wood-sorrel often grows in dense colonies that spread a glowing blanket of bright yellow blooms beneath the trees throughout winter and spring.

Scientific name: Oxalis pes-caprae
Italian common name: Acetosella degli
English common name: African wood-sorrel

Field marigold

During the first two weeks of January, generous rains coming in from Africa have encouraged heavy flowering of this attractive native. Don't be misled by the common name in English. This plant is not closely related to the well-known garden marigold of the genus Tagetes. The Sicilian Field marigold is a much-branched, herbaceous annual with lance-shaped leaves and single, daisy-like flower heads. The edible petals can be added to salads to make a more colorful presentation.

Scientific name: Calendula arvensis
Italian common name: Fiorrancio selvatico
English common name: Field marigold

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Italian cypress

Known almost universally in English as Italian cypress, this evergreen is actually not native to Italy. Instead, its range is thought to extend from the eastern Mediterranean, into north Africa and western Asia. The tree on the left in the attached photo shows the broad, pyramidal shape and horizontal branching habit of the parent species, C. sempervirens. To the right in the same photo, the narrow, columnar form and upright branching pattern of the cultivar 'stricta' can be seen. Both types have been cultivated throughout Italy for many centuries. The leaves are tiny, scale-like and dark green. Female (seed) cones are rounded or oblong, golf ball-sized and covered with 5 to 8 pairs of woody scales.

Scientific name: Cupressus sempervirens, C. sempervirens 'stricta'
Italian common name: Cipresso
English common name: Italian or Mediterranean cypress, Columnar Italian cypress