Conquered once more



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.

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Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I’m with you Elizabeth. I wasn’t prepared for all the non-native plants in Sicily either, particularly the Australian pines and eucalyptus trees. But then the Romans roamed the earth for a long time bringing back plants to grow before our hemisphere had hosted its first European explorer. I did admire the elaborate water handling systems with drip irrigation in all the fields. But the scenery in and out of towns, the mosaica of the roman baths (depicting women in bikinis centuries before it was supposedly invented in France), the ski resort on Mt. Etna (an active a continuously roaring volcano), herds of goats crossing the roads even in towns, and more certainly make it a fascinating adventure. Ginny

  2. Nah. Too far. I know it’s bad, but I’m not really all that interested. I did see “Licata” scrawled on a wall in the tiny village of Castelmole, above Taormina.

  3. Invasives really are the theme of the month here at the Rant. Thanks, Elizabeth for adding the two thousand-year view to the question.

    P.S. Wish I was there!

  4. Think I read somewhere that Sicily has no more native species, it’s been at the crossroads for so long. Wildflowers? Never been there.

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