Sicily, the biggest of the Mediterranean islands, boasts over 3000 different wildflowers that grow on its shores. The exuberant island wildflowers create explosions of form and color that have long astonished and inspired visitors from northern climes to come to admire the island’s flora–historical diaries and letters from visitors to the island are full of awed descriptions of the plant life they found here. Today, with the shadow of climate change, increased use of herbicides, and other global transitions, Sicily’s extraordinary biodiversity seems even more awe-inspiring. Certainly, for Susan Pettee and myself, the existence of natural biodiversity takes on a new urgency. Our new illustration and research project, The Garlands of the Gods: Wild Flowers from the Greek Ruins of Sicily, strives to share both our passion for the Sicilian flora as well as raise awareness of how climate and global change could forever alter beloved landscapes such as Sicily.
Yellow was the color of the moment when I visited Motya in early April. A tiny island first colonized by the Phœnicians almost 3,000 years ago, Motya lies at the center of a lagoon just north of Marsala on the western coast of Sicily. The walls of the fortified city, razed by the troops of Syracuse in 396 B.C.E., have crumbled; only the foundations of the sacred pools and precincts are visible amidst the tilled vineyards and the flowering meadows, edged with hedgerows of lentisk (Pistacia lentiscus), dwarf palms (Chamaerops humilis) and germanders (Teucrium fruticans, Prasium majus). These are plants typical of the ‘macchia mediterranea’, the vegetation that in its many variants is indigenous to the Mediterranean Basin and particularly adapted to its temperate winters and hot, dry summers.
The only sentinels that still guard the city are the tall stalks of the giant fennel (Ferula communis), the plant that enchanted Goethe when he visited Sicily in 1777, hoping to find the Urpflanze, the father of all plants. Unlike its cousins, the wild fennel and the sweet or bulb fennel, the giant fennel is not edible, but its sturdy stalk with a slow-burning pith has many uses: it served Prometheus for carrying the embers of the fire that he stole from the gods to give to man. Dionysius fashioned his thrysus or sacred rod from a giant fennel stalk, and commanded his followers to do the same, thus arming them with a weapon strong enough to hurt but not to wound, were it to be wielded in the course of a drunken revel.
Knee-high to the fennel stretches a carpet of crown daisies (Glebionis coronarium) so called because the ancients liked to weave them into crowns and garlands, although they called them by a more fanciful name—Dios ophyra, ‘eyebrow of Zeus’. Much prized in Chinese cooking, this plant is known in the United States as ‘edible chrysanthemum’. Mixed in with the daisies are purple milk thistles (Galactites tomentosa) and in the distance the scarlet blossoms of the sulla (Hedysarum coronarium).
Beyond all this, one can see a corner of the Giuseppe Whitaker Museum, where artifacts uncovered during excavations are displayed. By far the most splendid of all of these is the so-called ‘Youth of Motya’, a marble statue dating from the 5th century B.C.E. that was found under a pile of rubble in 1979. Slightly larger than life-sized and thought to represent a victorious charioteer, he is beautifully displayed and, to be irreverent, he is probably the sexiest piece of stone around. One wonders if he notices how the climate is changing, how the ‘fiori di maggio’, or ‘flowers of May’, as the Sicilian peasants used to call the crown daisies, are flowering now in March and April.
Motya is not among the seven Sicilian archeological sites that Susan Pettee and I visited while working on the project that we have called, “The Garlands of the Gods”, but it, too, offers visitors a close-up view of the incredible biodiversity of Sicily. Here on Motya, this glorious spectacle of natural beauty should be safe– at least for now–since the island is privately owned by the Whitaker Foundation. However, elsewhere in Sicily, the government has begun to cut costs by using herbicides to keep the wildflowers at bay. Susan and I originally intended for “The Garlands of the Gods” to inform and educate, but it has also become a cry of protest in defense of the botanical and cultural heritage that continues to survive in our rapidly changing world.
About the art show:
Members of the Harvard Class of 1962, Susan Pettee and Mary Taylor Simeti bring their creative vision and exploration of the wildflowers of Sicily to the Arnold Arboretum for this first look at their exciting illustration and research project: From Sicily to the Arnold Arboretum: Sicilian Wildflowers, the Art and Words of Susan Pettee and Mary Taylor Simeti (on view at the Arnold Arboretum Hunnewell Building from May 12 – July 16, 2017).
Meet the author and artist at the show’s opening reception on Saturday, May 20.