A Sicilian Grand Tour

By Helen Roberts

It was a distinctly overcast, grey, cold and rainy day last November in Bristol when I went to see Nick Wray, curator of the University of Bristol Botanic Garden, give a talk. I, like most people, was definitely feeling the lack of sunshine, but Nick’s talk on Sicilian landscapes certainly helped blow away the winter blues and had me looking forward to (hopefully) another blistering summer.

The Botanic Garden’s interest in Sicily 

Medieval farm quad at the Tasca d’Almerta in the
central rural mountains of Sicily


Nick has been working with a Sicilian horticulture colleague, Sergio Cumitini, for the last 5 years to establish a joint acclimatization project. The project has involved growing Mediterranean plants in the UK at various sites including Bristol’s Botanic Garden, RHS gardens and Tresco Abbey Garden on the Isles of Scilly. It was through this work that Nick became fascinated with the plants and landscapes of Sicily. His fascination led to a plant and garden tour to the island in spring 2013, which involved an introduction to the gardens, architecture and landscapes of the region as well as some visits to beautiful private gardens. For those who couldn’t go on the tour of Sicily, Nick’s November talk brought the Sicily tour to Bristol.  
Nick talked extensively about the flora of Sicily, both native and cultivated, and showed how the cultures and landscapes of the island are markedly connected. He toured us around a number of important buildings and landscapes starting in Sicily’s capital Palermo fanning out from the city and then around the island itself.

The native flora

Sicily is very rich agriculturally due to both the climate and the nutrient rich ash deposited from volcanic eruptions. The flora is distinctive and classed horticulturally as ‘maquis’ or ‘macchia’ in Italian, which refers to this Mediterranean biome that is rich in evergreen shrubs and deep rooted perennials. These plants are adapted to cool wet winters and blistering hot summers.
The vegetation can change with altitude and near Mt Etna – one of the world’s most active volcanoes located on the east coast of the island – the flora is distinctly temperate, whereas in parts of Palermo it can verge on sub tropical.
Also within the Sicilian landscapes are beautiful meadows filled with deep-rooted perennial herbs and aromatic shrubs, such as the spicy smelling curry plant, licorice scented fennel and pungent Tree Wormwood.

Cultures and landscapes inextricably entwined

The first major cultural impact on Sicily was by the Greeks, who built major colonies, such as Agrigento, between the 8th and 6th centuries BC. The people prospered here due to the rich alluvial plains, ideal for growing cereals, fruit and vegetables. The Greeks also introduced olives and vines to Sicily.
In the 3rd century BC, the island became the first Roman province and was held by the Roman Empire for over 6 centuries. Sicily was important in providing food for Romans and was termed ‘Rome’s bread basket’. The Byzantines occupied Sicily in AD 535 until 965.
In 965 the island fell to Arab conquest from North Africa. The beginnings of Arab invasion occurred in 827 (and lasted until 1091) and they successively conquered the major settlements. Palermo became the capital and grew into one of the most populous and cosmopolitan centres of the world with Hebrew, Latin, Greek and Arabic being spoken. Trade flourished, largely due to the island’s central location in the Mediterranean; Sicily has been at the crossroads of trade for over 8000 years. As a result of this trading hotspot many plants were introduced to Europe over thousands of years.
The Arabs worked wonders in agriculture, dividing large estates and diversifying production. They developed sophisticated irrigation systems, known as ‘qanats’, to provide water throughout the city, but these systems were then adapted to use in olive groves. The Arabs also introduced one of Sicily’s most important crops – citrus fruit.
Culturally, Arab gardens were heavily influenced by water and water features w
ere important in symbolizing paradise. Water was often brought into the house by a series of rills, which in turn helped to cool the air inside.

Ancient cloister garden at the cathedral town of Monreale


From 1060 the Normans progressively settled the island and rather than destroying Arabic culture, they embraced it. The Normans were greatly impressed by Arabic architecture and continued to use Arabic architects and craftsmen in their buildings, such as San Giovanni degli Eremiti (a church in Palermo), the Cathedral of Monreale, and the Zisa (a castle in Palermo built for King William I of Sicily). All of these buildings have strong Arabic influences with decorative art on the walls and floors, and domes mounted on cubic towers.

In and around Palermo…


The Botanic Gardens of Palermo

False kapok tree (Ceiba speciosa) growing at the Palermo
Botanic Garden

Palermo Botanic Garden was founded in 1779 and was originally developed to grow medicinal plants. It has fantastic specimen plants including a number of Cycad species (given by the aristocracy of Naples to the aristocracy of Sicily), the beautiful False Kapok Tree, a number of different palms and cacti and the impressive Moreton Bay Fig (Ficus macrophylla). This latter beast of a tree has buttress roots that extend over an area of around 1,000 square metres (about 10,764 ft2). This aggressive tree starts as an epiphyte and then slowly strangles its host.

A British home in Sicily

There are many large country houses in and around Palermo. One of the more interesting is the Villa Malfitiano, an Italian mansion which was built by the Whittaker family (originally from Yorkshire) who made their money importing Marsala wine into Liverpool. This house has amazing examples of Trompe-l’œil with images of gardens painted on the walls. The gardens themselves have rare collections of trees.

Further out of Palermo

As you move out of the city, the built landscape gives way to small scale farming with groves of almonds and olives growing on the slopes. Here you can find weird and wonderful plants, many dependent on wild fire to colonise. One such odd looking poisonous plant is the mandrake (genus Mandragora), which belongs to the nightshades (Solanaceae) family. This genus flowers in October, but otherwise doesn’t look like much for the rest of the year.  Its root is believed to resemble a man and according to folklore, will shriek when pulled up (a fact that JK Rowling incorporated into Harry Potter). It is thought this is likely a rumour spread by herbalists as the plant has hallucinogenic and narcotic properties and they wanted to protect it!

A family estate

The privately owned estate belonging to the Marchesi Paternò Castello Di San Giuliano lies between Catalina and Syracuse and has been with the family for 800 years. The 4 hectare garden here has been developed over the last 40 years and has been gardened by British head gardener, Rachel Lamb, since 2002. It is truly Mediterranean in its use of plantings and also its aesthetics, with swathes of palms, eucalypts, bougainvillea’s, yuccas and succulents. There are beautiful stone pines and pergolas to provide shade and rills to provide irrigation. On the estate citrus are grown to make jams and marmalades, which are then sold at exclusive shops such as Fortnum and Mason.

The garden that wasn’t

Just south of Catania are the gardens of Villa Borghese, which were created by Princess Maria Carla Borghese from a former dry lakes side, a process that has taken forty years. The lake was a breeding ground for mosquitoes carrying malaria so in the 1930s the lake was drained. The fishermen left, leaving an ancient harbour wall that was built by the ancient Greeks; this wall is now in the heart of the garden and surrounded by immense succulents and palms.

An artist’s garden

In 1905
, Casa Cuseni in Taormina, on the east coast of the island, was built by Robert Kitson, a famous English artist. In it’s heyday it had many famous visitors notably Oscar Wilde and Picasso. The terraced gardens were carefully designed to enhance the amazing views and are richly planted with citrus, roses, vines, wisteria and irises.

 A rich landscape tapestry

Sicily has it all, magnificent buildings, exceptional history, extreme geography and geology and exquisite landscapes and gardens. The sheer diversity of gardens and landscapes of Sicily is an indication of the many influences from different cultures over thousands of years on this truly distinct island. And if we don’t come by a sun drenched summer this year in England then you can always plan a trip to Sicily instead.
Nick will be leading a garden and landscape tour of Sicily again this year, from 26th April to 6th May. Click here for more information.

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