Unfortunately, we did not have enough space in Naturelink for Rodger Elliot’s full piece on the Cranbourne Friends Sicily Tour, so we hope you enjoy reading it below.
Cranbourne Friends Sicily Tour, May 2018
This was truly a wonderful tour that was organised by ‘one of our own’, Alf Reina. Alf was born
in Sicily but moved to Australia with his family when he was 17 years old.
One of his major coups in organising this Tour was to coerce his cousin Alfie Orlando, who
has been running tours of Sicily for over 25 years, to be our Guide. We do not think that Alfie
took much coercing, for he loves and knows just about every square kilometre of Sicily and
wants to share his marvellous island with everyone.
There were many highlights (too many to fully describe here) during the 22 day tour, as Alfie,
with his highly contagious and excitable presence, took us to yet another one of the ‘Seven
Wonders of Sicily’. We think we might have reached his ‘forty-ninth Wonder’ by the end of the
One major highlight occurred in Alf and Alfie’s home town Cianciana, when at a special
Mayoral Reception, Alf Reina was presented with an award “for nobleness of soul and
humanitarian spirit” in recognition of his peacekeeping efforts and work with refugees and
asylum seekers. It was a marvellous morning for the town, Alf’s relatives (some had travelled
from London) and us. There were many teary eyes in our group that morning as we partook of
the delightful celebratory local delicacies.
Throughout the tour, the food was undoubtedly a highlight with plenty of seafood, pasta (the
range of which is mind-boggling), real pizzas, sublime gelati (some people who shall remain
nameless were hardly ever without a cone or cup in their hands!), granita and of course,
coffee. One lasting memory is from the very first day when some of us had a scrumptious
oven-fresh sourdough panino at a quiet café on the coast at Castellammare de Golfo. It was
generously filled with beautiful mozzarella, tomato, basil and prosciutto. Heavenly! It really set
the panini standard for the whole tour.
We learnt so much about Sicily from Alfie and Alf, who were founts of knowledge covering the
centuries of history and culture of this strategically important island. Early civilisations made a
huge impact on Sicily and the archaeological sites of Segesta, Selinunte and Agrigento
certainly provide much information as to how these early and very well-organised civilisations
lived, 500 years BC. The Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina displays stunning
ceramics, regarded as possibly the best in the world!
The scenery was breathtaking whether we were on the coast, in the mountains or in
agricultural areas. It was truly heartening to see farms with such a diversity of crops; we did
not see any evidence of monoculture farming. There is a strong emphasis on organic farming
and we were treated to a special tasting of freshly made Ricotta by one local farmer. Over the
years they have learned not to plant seedling pistachio trees because they die; instead they
let them multiply from seeds that germinate in the old lava flows, and they continue to thrive to
a very old age.
We were fortunate to visit some stunning nature reserves and come face to face with many
native plants, some of which are only found on Sicily. In the Riserva Naturelle dello Zingaro
we enjoyed the splendour of the Dwarf Palms, Chamaerops humilis, and many other flowering
plants including outstanding yellow thistles, brilliant red poppies and Acanthus mollis, as well
as viewing exhibitions of traditional agricultural tools and practices. The endemic violets,
berberis and potentillas on the foothills of Mt Etna were certainly eye-catching. It was nearing
the end of flowering for some of their stunning native terrestrial orchids in the Riserva Naturale
Torre Salsa, but we could still enjoy the beauty of Orchis collina and O. italica. Teucrium
fruticans, which is grown for its ornamental value and toughness here, and other plants like
Cistus and the Capers, Capparis spinosa and C. ovata, were in flower. Various species of
Eryngium were also in flower and showing similar characteristics to those of our native Blue
Devil, E. rostratum.
Sicily is the home to the largest Beech Fagus sylvatica forest in Europe, with plants thriving in
the Nebrodi Mountains. While driving through this forest we were surprised to see, at close
quarters, two sows of the famous Nebrodi Black Pigs, which were trying to discourage their
sizeable litter of piglets from gaining access to their milk. Spartium junceum, which we know
here as the weedy yellow broom, was in all its glory, with dazzling floral displays sometimes
covering hectares on mountain slopes. Sicily has not escaped Australian weeds, however,
and Acacia saligna was prevalent in some areas. River Red Gums, Eucalyptus camaldulensis,
were common in many regions as they were commonly planted to help drain swamps and
lakes in order to counteract malaria. Now and again we also came across the brilliant orange
of Silky Oaks, Grevillea robusta, in full flower and a number of Brachychiton species, which had been planted as street trees; the Kurrajong, B. populneus, was also common, especially
Our visit to Palermo Botanic Gardens early in the Tour was wonderful, with our guide the very
vibrant and knowledgeable Cassandra Funston, a horticultural and botanical historian
originally from Pasadena in California and now the partner of the Gardens Curator. These
gardens are part of the Palermo University and were established in 1779. It was staggering to
see a Ficus macrophylla forma columnaris from Norfolk and Lord Howe Islands, with a canopy
of about 60 m across and many supporting trunks, developed from what were initially
adventitious roots. They are very keen to obtain seed of the Australian mainland form Ficus
macrophylla forma macrophylla, which we will endeavour to supply. A 200+ year-old Moonah,
Melaleuca lanceolata, with its huge spread and very sizeable spreading trunks supported by
numerous poles, was a wonderful testament to the care the Gardens give to such plants. As is
the case with many botanic gardens they are short-staffed, but they are going ahead with the
development of different collections and their Cycad Collection is now one of the best in
Europe. For further information see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orto_botanico_di_Palermo
We were fortunate to visit a couple of gardens that are part of the Grand Open Garden
Scheme and the Villa San Giuliano Garden on a 60 hectare property near Lente was a delight.
The curator, Rachel Lamb, is overseeing the renovation and development of this very old
garden. A recent addition is an impressive cacti planting. The citrus collection was startling.
We were able to give something in return for our visit; a couple of advanced Grass Trees,
Xanthorrhoea species, which were among a group planted in the lawn, were not happy,
possibly as a result of overwatering and root disease problems, and we were able to suggest
treatment. The advice was to treat them regularly with phosphite/phosphonate. It will be
interesting to follow their progress and learn how they respond. Another problem for them was
that a well-established Pinus pinea had been struck by lightning in October 2017; sadly it was
now showing distinct signs that it might not survive.
Thanks so much to our Guide Alfie, Driver Giuseppe and of course to our own Alf, for a truly
NB. Alf Reina is interested in organising another Sicilian Tour. It is hoped to have another tour
in May 2019 or 2020 and we are seeking expressions of interest in such a tour. If you are
interested then make sure you complete the section on the Booking Form and send it to the
So heed the advance advice! In the mean-time there is likely to be a presentation some time
in the future, covering this wonderful tour, for the Friends to enjoy. Keep your eyes and ears