Poor Sicily. As if the Phoenicians, Saracens, Spaniards, Greeks, Roman, and Normans weren’t enough, our stay in Taormina (from which we just returned last night) made it very clear that plants from other parts of the world are not just encroaching on native species here: they’re a characteristic part of the landscape.
Take opuntia (prickly pear cactus), which grows by the roadsides, in the fields, on the lower slopes of Etna, and everywhere else it can fulfill its minimal needs. I’m not sure when the plant was introduced, but it has certainly been embraced: in pots, gardens, and as rampant roadside weeds. They use it in folk remedies and make a liquor from it (among many delicious fruit liquors Sicily specializes in—even more than Campania).
I came to see native wildflowers—which I did see—but I didn’t expect to see this much opuntia and agave. Perhaps a slightly more welcome invasive was the wisteria, in bloom everywhere.
Well, for that matter, olive and lemon trees came from somewhere else too, though it is hard to imagine this place without them. Especially when they’re as big as your head:
Does it matter? Well, with a place that has seen so much human history, I guess I’m looking for some measure of authenticity, some sense that what’s there has always been there. What that is in Sicily might not always be the specific plants, but it would be the almost constant evoking of dichotomies like lush/barren and poor/extravagant at every bend in the road. It may not be a native landscape but it says Sicily—to me, and I suspect many others.
Next up: native grapes. No need to prevaricate there.