Wild flowers of Etna and Aeolian Islands

When I look for a new path, or a new route from afar, on a map, and study it, despite calculations and previsions I never know in advance exactly how long it will take to walk it, but above all I do not know what to expect in terms of details, curiosities and surprises that will disclose to me.

Walking it over and over, season after season, I have learnt the time frame, the colors, the temperature to exactly say: “it is Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn”. And I learnt and keep learning about their flowers, their fruits, that, as for all the languages of the world, one life is not enough to know all their words and history and contents. From a linguistic and biologist perspective.

I remember as a student of Biology that botanics was far from my goal, the one I saw and had at that time. Botanics was ostic, did not speak my language, my way. I was not ready to comprehend it. I had not fully experienced that exams never end in life and goals change indeed. But, I was given a key while watching a movie. In a scene there was a student of Medicine who had difficulty with an exam, he couldn’t find a way to understand that subject. His wise girlfriend told him: “find something in it that meets your way of being or thinking, even a small something, and let it run inside you”. “You may not get its full reason now, today, but you will in the future”. It was true, studying let you store knowledge that one day, in a unpredictable moment life will turn into something that is a new key, a new perspective, a revelation, a window, or a door.

My unpredictable moment occurred in 2012 when a big economic crisis in my family business blurred my way and I was lost. I decided to go living in a remote island, that became my second house: Filicudi. Here I started walking, walking and walking to explore the mountain paths, the country paths, the coastal paths, the sea and myself. And Botanics found me.

All those flowers rising their heads up from Spring to late Summer and their green bodies during Autumn and Winter to help us staying healthy, captured my attention, curiosity, passion for study, ideas, from my perspective as a biologist and naturalistic walker guide. They ignited my deep desire to share the knowledge acquired concerning their ancient and modern and future healing and culinary properties with my guests, not to lose the most important patrimony all of us can inherit without public notaries or successions: Nature, including our own.

Of all images that follow my writing, my images shot during 8 years of walking in eastern Sicily, including Mount Etna, Catania, Acitrezza, Acicastello, Alcantara River Valley, Plemmirio Natural Reserve, Eloro Reserve, Ispica Caves, and my beloved Aeolian Islands – Filicudi, Alicudi, Salina, Lipari, Vulcano, Panarea and Stromboli – some are more detailed without pretending of being a teacher. Teaching is reserved to professors and books from whom I learn. This blog is meant to stimulate thirst for knowledge and research into the roots of our land, Sicily. Sicily can boast the most fertile soil of the world, the Mediterranean soil where hundreds of civilizations for centuries from all over the world have brought and left, aware or unaware, a seed unknown for it to bloom into a flower, fruit or magic herb destined to us: The Sicilians.

Grouping is based on the colors of the flowers. Scientific and common names and geographic locations are indicated in the photo captions.

Blue and violet

In some cases distinct, in some cases combined in unique hues, and in some other even hidden.

In this group we find:

Vinca major whose poison content, through the alkaloid vincristine, also inspired poets like Giovanni Pascoli writing about the power of love.

Violas and Violets that first of all remind me of my childhood when they meant Spring was coming and my grandfather, a lemon grower who taught us to thank women with flowers. Violets are edible and have a good effect on kidneys.

Purple milk thistle is a honey plant. The word milk was given for the dense white hairs covering the stems and leaves.

Vicia benghalensis is an above-suspicion forage.

Wild lupine and Spanish vetchling were both inherited by the Romans who used it as a 100%-vegetarian protein source. Lupine was already used by Incas and native Americans and ferry after ferry, boats after boats it reached Europe and Sicily.

Bulbs of Tassel hyacinth are better protagonists than its fringed corolla. At Acaja in Apulia they organize a festival to honor this plant. Along the stalk the lower flowers are fertile and the upper flowers are not. I wonder what’s the goal of the upper corolla that looks like the plumage of a bird in love.

My favorite that stayed secret to me for months is the Isatis tinctoria, known also with the name woad. Isatis is for its property of smoothing leather and tinctorial because its stalks contain pastel blue pigments to color clothes. It was used since Neolithic and from Egyptians to dye the wrapping of mummies. In Italy it was introduced by Cathars in Piedmont where the textile industry was the base of the flourishing economy of northern Italy. Curiosities: the brick of color derived from woad in French was “cocagne” from which the word Cockaigne derives to indicate a promised land. The father of the famous painter Piero della Francesca was a trader of woad and guess from where the blue of blue jeans came from….

Matthiola Incana, which together with sea squill and asphodel tell us that there is sand where they root from. They indicate our Islands came out from the sea.

Butterfly orchid belongs to a group of wild orchids that honor us of their extraordinary presence on Mount Etna and Aeolian Islands. They stand always alone, in the shadow, a few, but classy.

Borage has excellent healthy values in the leaves, that you can simply boil and dress with a good olive oil to calm the stomach, and in the flowers characterized by a distinct architecture they have the perfect sweetness to add to ricotta cheese.

Caper flowers deserve and will have a dedicated blog. It is an intermediate step between the gem, which is the very caper, and the fruit that is the cucuncio, with its proper taste used in salads or as aperitif. Capers are the base of Aeolian economy and cousine. They exalt the salty essence of the soil they grow into.

Mallow flowers are perfect to make a digestive tea.

Violet or yellow crocus flowers hide the pistil containing saffron, a golden spice arrived from the far east to the Sicilian Mediterranean.

Pitch trefoil is always a joke for the nose. Pick a leaf big enough, rub with fingers and smell your fingers and guess what they smell. After a while the answer is: “bitume!”. In fact, it is an environmental marker to tell there is bitume in the soil. Bigger amounts of bitume also show with black stains on the white stone of southern Sicily, especially in the province of Syracuse and Ragusa. In the past it was used for its febrifuge property.

Pink and red

To pink and red belong wild carnation, ophrys, Sedum caeruleum, poppies, cyclamen, Spanish vetchling, Fumaria muralis, star clover and marian cardoon that with its silibinin, besides the leaves, roots and seeds is a therapeutic plant more than a wild edible vegetable. In fact, it is a powerful medicine for the liver, which is our metabolic headquarters.

Wild garlic is always a revelation for me. None of my guests ever believe I pull out cloves when I indicate it. I am enchanted by its smell which is fine and naturally wild at the same time, like me.

Hedysarum coronarium alias “sulla” is a special plant. It appears for a very short time during Spring and the luckiest sheep, goats, cows that eat it will have such a sweet milk to make us the happiest cheese eaters of the year. Do not miss the opportunity to taste ricotta cheese during sulla flowering. It covers fields with beautiful and soft red oases from which derives the Sicilian saying “sii ‘ndda sudda” meaning you are happy and comfortable. Even bees make an amazing honey out of it.

Tradescantia sillamontana I found in Alicudi, Aeolian Islands, brought from Mexico. There are several varieties all having this small pink or white flower in the middle of their leaves. My favourite is the navicularis with the leaves arranging in the shape of a boat, but also the pallida.

Cytinus Hypocistus catches the attention for its unusual brilliant colors. It is a parasitic plant of Cystacee, missing chlorophill. Its carmine red external leaves always contain a white or yellow flowers. I have never met the yellow ones yet.

Asphodel belongs to the Liliaceae family, a pink prince in the realm of bees, the flower itself resembles a bee if you watch it from afar. And from afar come the ancient uses of Asphodel: Greeks used the flowers to adorn tombs, and Romans planted it in front of country houses to keep devils away. Literally Asphodel means “that resists fire” which was usually set to fertilize the fields used for farming. The bulbs, in fact, resist since they are buried, and goats and sheep love asphodel’s flowers and seeds that they spread all over the fields.

Amongst regional uses it is worth mentioning Sardinia where they produce a rare honey, and they used to make baskets with asphodel’s roots that were a precious gift in bride’s dowry. In Apulia still today locals use the leaves to start the preparation of a special burrata cheese. While in Sicily we specialized in cooking the tubers, in extracting their juice for its anti parasitic function, and preparing water lotions with roots and flowers used in cosmetics by the ladies to whiten the skin.

The Bible says that God asked to look for a man holding a flowered stick to become Maria’s husband, and Giuseppe appeared holding a stick of flowered asphodel.

Modern history does not lag behind at all and also Harry Potter used the powder of asphodel together with an infusion of Artemisia absinthium to make a soporific potion so powerful to be called “the Draugh of Living Death” so linking the past to the present, tradition to innovative creativity since the wheel of history never stop turning.

Silene is a huge genus with 700 species. They taught me that ALL individuals even if they look twins are NEVER the same, start look deeper.

Silene is the feminine form of Silenus, a Greek woodland deity. Used to study systems, particularly in the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology as a model for understanding the genetics of sex determination since Linneus in 1700.

The white silene is vulgaris and two of its common names are scipeti or cannatedda with which to make risotto. The pink silene is Hicesiae Brullo&Signorello, what a sophisticated name.

Dog rose is a bomb of Vitamin C. A tea made with its fruits is a magic potion against cold.

The whites

Also garlic has a white version, the Spring garlic, and also the wild orchids. White flowers are those of Nigella damascena, white clover, annual kidney vetch, silene and eryngium.

Inflorences of the wild carrot are edible and delicious battered and fried.

While the bulb of sea squill is a big onion that remains buried and resist controlled burning. It can be dehydrated and sliced for several curative properties including a cardiotonic effect.

Yellow and orange for me have the sea in the background

Chritmum maritimum is a sea fennel, crunchy at sight. One of my friends from Filicudi taught me a recipe to preserve it. After picking boil in water acidulated with a little lemon jouice or vinegar until it changes color turning brownish, max 10 minutes. Then discard the water and let it dry. When ready put into jars with olive oil and one clove. After one month is ready to use. It gives a touch of sea scent to all salads.

Brooms are everywhere in eastern Sicily from Aeolian Islands to Mount Etna. Brooms where the first plants to appear on lava soil since their roots can break the lava, like cactus and pistachio trees, allowing more arable soil. The smell of broom flowers is exciting, it is a 3D olfactory experience.

Hypocaheris also called cat’s ear and common milk thistle are depurative wild veggies to eat boiled with a good olive oil when found locally by private or street vendors, almost a miracle.

Sanicle with its yellow crowns belongs to the same family of carrots and parsnip, they have good anti-inflammatory properties.

Euphorbia is the first tree-plant to appear at early Spring. Its stalk can reach a height of more than 3 meters. It is used as a stick by shepherds and for making stools by local artisans. Under its lower foliage grow mushrooms commonly known as funghi di ferla.

Let zucchini flowers introduce themselves with their unique taste and flavor when served warm filled with mozzarella cheese, anchovy and….fried.

Last but not least the calendula, whose flowers are used both to decorate antipasti and cakes, or cooked in soups and risotto. Much used in herbal preparations for its properties as blood depurative and cicatrizing, antinflammatory, antiseptic and antiviral.

Nature is a curtain that every season reveals us a subject to study over and over to link the past to the present through evolution and RESEARCH.