Having just returned from a trip to Sicily, I was struck by both the loveliness of the sloping, open landscapes and, the familiarity with many of the plants I encountered. Yes, being a tourist with a tour group took you to more scenic, touristy locations but it was awesome to see so many potted plants adorning rooftops, balconies, alleys and wherever else possible for plants to grow.

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Pot and window boxes filled with flowers in Taormina

There were several plants that I had never met in real life. One of them was capers. I thought capers were from a plant in the nasturtium family. As it turns out, nasturtium seeds are pickled and used as ‘Poor Man’s Capers’. I grow deck-railing containers of nasturtiums every year for their fragrance, color, and for the hummingbirds. One of my sisters, who is much more into medicinal and culinary plants than I, munches on a blossom or two whenever she visits. The capers you and I purchase at the store are from the caper bush (Capparis spinosa) which is a perennial plant that has rounded leaves and white to pinkish flowers and grows prolifically in Sicily and other parts of the world with a more Mediterranean-like climate. The flower buds are hand-picked, pickled and used as capers. The fruit is also harvested, pickled and used as a seasoning.

Messina plant capers

Capers plant growing in crack in wall

If the architecture of ancient civilizations was covered in your history classes, you might remember the term, acanthus. Plants from the acanthus species were used by Romans and Greeks as medicinal and ornamental plants. Images of the leaves decorated the capitals of Corinthian columns as well as furniture, jewelry and other items.

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Corinthian column decorated with Acanthus leaves

I think the species of acanthus growing in the parts of Sicily we visited was Acanthus mollis. Most of us New Englanders cannot grow this plant as it is hardy only to zone 6. The flowers are most curious. The ones we saw were white and 3-lobed and topped with a purplish bract. The foliage is prickly (acanthus is derived from the Greek word for thorns) and while it was delightful to meet this plant in person, under the right conditions it looks like it could claim a good chunk of garden space spreading via underground roots.

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Acanthus near ancient ruins in Syracusa

Oleanders lined many of the roadways with lantanas planted in the medium strips. The foliage of both are toxic to herbivores although birds eat the lantana berries and this plant can be spread from seeds in their droppings. Lantana camara is native to the American tropics. In some areas of the world it is considered a noxious weed. We grow this species mostly in containers to attract butterflies.

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Bright colored lantanas

Oleanders are so widespread worldwide that their region of origin is somewhat murky – perhaps southwest Asia. I had one as a potted plant for years. It was pink and smelled delicious. I sniffed every oleander I cane close to in Sicily but could not detect any with scent.

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Red oleanders and pink bougainvillea

Almost everywhere we went, there were fig opuntias. The large cactus pads had few visible spines and large reddish fruits. This cactus is useful for erosion control and for its fruits that are made into jams and other items. There is a Sicilian liqueur called ‘Ficodi’ made from this plant and sold as a medicinal tonic or aperitif.

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Fig opuntia along side of road in Taormina

The landscape was dotted with olive, almond and citrus trees. One olive tree at Agrigenta is believed to be the oldest in Sicily with its age pegged at about 500 years. The olives and almonds weren’t ripe yet but the lemons and oranges were just begging to be picked.

Orange Tree

Orange and lemon trees were everywhere

Colorful geraniums and petunias spilled from pots, planters and window boxes. They just added to the Mediterranean charm of these Old World ports and cities. So, this summer as I deadhead and groom my containers filled with geraniums and other plants, I can perhaps transport myself back to my idyllic week in Sicily – even if only in my mind.

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Geraniums in urn

Dawn P.