Sicily: Part One (Termini Imerese)

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This is Termini Imerese in the province of Palermo, Sicily. It’s the hometown of my great-grandparents Frank and Rosaria Amato. It’s also the town my great-great grandfather Salvatore Amato decided to return to in order to live out his final years after he’d brought all of his sons here to Portland, OR to help them start new lives.

The view from the Falcone-Borsellino Airport which was named after two anti-mafia judges who were murdered on their way into Palermo in 1992.
Since childhood, I’ve longed to return here. Back then I heard stories about Termini from other relatives who’d returned to visit family. I knew I would too, but I’d never imagined it would take this long.
Grandma Rosaria posing at the door to her tiny kitchen empire in SE Portland. She was considered one of the best cooks in the family and time spent at her table was a gift.
I’d heard about it from my great-grandma too. If only she could have seen me there! Just thinking about it truly brings tears to my eyes. I flew through the streets of her tiny hometown in our rental car. I think she would have smiled her wide smile and laughed a bit.
Then she would have asked if I would be a good Italian girl now.
Our dear rental car. I recommend the 4-door Fiat. Fun car to drive—especially through narrow twisting streets at high speeds. (Oh how I miss those olive trees!)
As soon as we arrived for our 5 days in Sicily we picked up our rental car and drove to the agricultural area just east of Termini on the opposite side of Monte San Calogero. (More on that below.) It was our home base for this part of our trip.
Not sure if this kind of decorative chain would work in the US. I see lawsuit written all over this one.
Visiting the cemeteries while in Italy is a must—especially if it’s your “home turf”.
Since many of my family members came here to Portland, Oregon generations ago, I didn’t find many Amato family members, but next time I’ll make the necessary connections.
It’s a complicated affair. Sicilian culture and family life is not for the meek, mild or wildly independent. You can’t really be part Sicilian because you must dedicate yourself to the lifestyle with gusto and a loyal heart.
For me, this was simply the trip where I went from dipping my toe into the pool to stepping down onto the first and second steps. (Honestly, I was way too emotional to meet relatives.)
Next time I’ll dive. This trip was really just to scout it out. As you’ll see, I very much enjoyed myself.
What a lush Crassula!

The cemetery is Termini Imerese was alive with plants and many people were there visiting gravesites.

Although the island bakes in the summer sun—with scorching sirocco winds from time to time—there are a few tall evergreens in places. (I always look for tall trees.) Overall, the inner island was much greener than I’d expected it to be but it was logged long ago by the Greeks and Romans. It was fun to try and imagine what the original island must have been like botanically but since humans have been living there for so long it’s impossible to know.

Sicily is rustic. It is full of folk traditions and simplicity. There are no false pretenses. Everything central to the society and important is hidden, and yet much of life is lived out in the open. Sicily is elaborate and ornate, and yet it is gut wrenchingly brutally honest.

Much more is spoken with the eyes and the body than the mouth. That is Sicilian. That’s why the island is advertised as “being for poets”. It truly is a magical and unique place.

Not sure what this succulent was, but it caught my eye. (I’d love to grow one here at home.)

The whole cemetery was full of amazing plants, planters, and cut flowers. There were so many unique variations on the same theme.

Then there was this guy.

In his left hand he’s holding a pack of cigarettes. I was a bit shocked he wasn’t holding coffee in the right hand, but instead, it’s eternally posed in such a way as to have a flower inserted into it.

I’m sure that his conversation with God is always an interesting one. Sicily is dramatic.

This sculpture was my favorite. In addition to the woman’s facial expression—which is uniquely Sicilian and deadpan to me—she is admiring the agricultural products still harvested on the island.

She appears almost uniquely longing for the life of the harvest but is unable to reach it any more. This was really touching to me.

From the top of the hill in town it was truly a vista looking east towards Monte San Calogero.

Just a few paces from there we reached a park where many residents promenade.

I was of course fond of this broken down concrete baby greeting us at its gates.

I cannot recall the name of this tree but I’ve seen it before in San Diego, CA. Its orange flowers looked lovely against the shades of terra cotta paint and clear sapphire blue sky.

Down below was the older part of town. There is a park there and a square with a gelateria. It’s the park I’d seen in postcards depicted in black and white. It’s where my Grandma Rosaria had celebrated many festivals as a girl.

Of course we went there several times for gelato and while walking and eating I noticed this sweet act of Sicilian plant kindness.

It would have been fun to take more photos of private gardens but in Sicily I didn’t like to take many photos without permission.

Trust me, if you’ve been there and you care and respect the people, you’ll know exactly what I mean. You just don’t walk around taking lots of pictures. It makes you stand out and that’s the last thing you want to do.

For many generations my male family members were greengrocers and I very much wanted to see how that had come to pass. During this trip, the greatest joy was seeing the trade still fully functioning in a modern world.

Leaving Termini this is what you see if you head east and up the valley where we were staying. In the distance, many small truck farmer plots can be seen. For generations this is how farming has worked in this part of Sicily. I’ve read accounts of this kind of agriculture in other parts of Italy too, but it’s not as common nowadays.

The most difficult part was that it is still a job and a lifestyle for men. In Sicily there is still a very wide gender divide and women only tend to small planters and garden plots attached to their own homes.

I should add that you don’t see many women at all. There are some working, but there are many you don’t see because they’re at home. Even those who are working, are often behind the scenes, unseen.

The mother where we stayed did all of the cooking, yet she remained hidden the whole time we stayed there. I caught a glance of her one evening, but she saw me and went back inside of her room.

This was a familiar arrangement to me, but I can’t deny how torn it made me feel. On the other hand, it helped me to better understand my own family.

The view of Monte San Calogero from our room was breathtaking. The scent of the artichoke farms in the morning is something I’ll never forget. This place was already imprinted on me but being there fleshed it all out for me. I have never felt so at home.

Just for contrast, this is a town in the interior of Sicily. I stopped to take this photo on our way from an ancient Roman villa to see Greek temples in Agrigento.

I know many people love Tuscany, but I’m Sicilian and I’ll never stop loving the light, the colors, the sounds, the tastes, and the silence of the people of Sicily. It’s in my blood. It’s an even larger part of me than I’d known until I visited there.

Yes, Sicily gave Italy cannolo(i), gelato(i), and sorbetto(i) too. Don’t believe me? Look it up! For this reason alone I’ll take Sicily over the rest of Italy. It’s such a rich place culturally and it’s so unlike any other place in the world.

It may have been invaded many times, and it’s been ruled by many people, but that’s what makes it so unique. My own DNA shows signs of the island’s rich genetic and cultural history. Where else do you find Greek, Italian, Middle Eastern, North African, Spanish, and French influences blended together? Nowhere else!

Each night we returned to our room at the farm.

Our room was at one end, and at the other, some young Sicilian men returned each evening from working somewhere in the area on the artichoke harvest.

Normally you’d say ‘Hi’ or acknowledge another with a nod. Because I’m a married woman, for several days they pretended not to see me. It felt strange, but I knew the game.

One day the obvious leader of the group said ‘Hi’ to me very nervously in English. I was sitting in a common area near where we all ate. It was the only spot in the place with Wifi and I was alone. It was obvious he didn’t know much more English than that so he then laughed nervously and hurried off.

After that, a few others in the group cast me sideways glances, but out of respect, they never said anything more. By the time our visit was ending, I felt very safe around them. That’s how Sicily works. It’s all about trust and respect. They respected me, and it led me to trust them more. This means everything to a Sicilian and I enjoyed the interaction immensely.

We also went to Cefalù and saw what sanitized and safe tourist-friendly Sicily looks like and I loved it there as well. The intensity of personal interactions was lessened dramatically and we walked around freely without the eyes of the people upon us. (We also had a lovely married couple comedy routine in Italian with a local cheesemonger while we were there. John and I made the young man crack up and I felt like we were really fitting in just fine.)

I was also able to take this photo of a produce vendor. The old donkey carts my family used have been replaced with these little trucks. As you drive around the Palermo area you see them everywhere. They have the freshest produce in them and they get to market quickly. They simply pull up to the street, park and vend.

And of course that little truck had fresh local artichokes! So glad we ate them in a zillion dishes at the Agriturismo La Targa Florio.

Oh the fresh artichokes of Sicily!

I won’t soon forget you and your sister the mythical ancient pistachio of Bronte.

To be continued…

Alcatraz: The Garden Tour, Part Two

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Once you reach the top, you’re at the cellhouse. If you’d continued following the garden tour, this is near where it ends, just beneath the Recreational Yard, where the fenced in prisoners’ garden once was and where it has been restored. (Note the Lobularia maritima in the foreground.)

In case you were wondering, this is the inside of the prison. To be honest, inside it is very small but it’s so interesting. (We had an amazing time watching the European tourists and we both loved hearing Italians speaking Italian.)

Back on the trail, these were the plants I was able to see as the tour went from the top of the Rock down along the westside towards the north with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge that’s amazing.
Perennial Statice, Limonium perezii.
Seed heads of Bear’s Breeches, Acanthus mollis.
The refurbished prisoners’ area greenhouse.
The prisoners’ greenhouse back in 1993 or 1994 during my first visit to Alcatraz.
Aeonium arboreum and Acanthus mollis.
Crassula, Aeonium, and Acanthus. I am not sure what the silvery one is but I am sure someone else will know.
This is another view of the same area.
And another view. I think there are some Aloe in there too.
This is about as close as you can get to the water on this side. There is a fence though so you cannot walk on the pavement. This area is protected. Birds nest there.
Kinda not sure about this one but it is a Mediterranean plant all right.
Fig Tree, Ficus in the prisoners’ garden.
Notice the fence. You can also see the skyline of downtown San Francisco.
From that area you can walk up the steep stairs to the Recreational Yard.
We started to make our way back down to the ferry at this point and believe it or not there were still plants to see that I’d missed on our way up.
Crocosmia.
Monstera deliciosa in a photo display in the Warden’s Office of what it looked like during the Kennedy administration.
If you were coming to visit someone on Alcatraz, you would have had to walk under this display. The cornucopias with their bountifulness is a bit odd.
The planter box along the road down to the boat was full of Geraniums.
Behind this row and down below are some of the areas we’d been granted access too earlier in the day.
Alcatraz is full of Fuchsia after Fuchsia.
A lone Hydrangea with a few Western sword ferns, Polystichum munitum.
Leathery Polypody Fern, Polypodium scouleri. This is a great native plant.
 Trailing Iceplant, Delosperma cooperi.
Where the Rock meets man.
This was a very tall red Geranium.
 Trailing Iceplant, Delosperma cooperi.
Nasturium have taken over and are growing wild on the island.
Unknown Geranium.
Unknown Geranium.
Back at the dock there is yet another Geranium.
An unknown Fuchsia tree.
Fuchia trying to get off the Rock.
A carpet of Aeonium.
This is a view of the Aeonium carpet as seen from the ferry.

If this did not whet your appetite for a trip to Alcatraz, I don’t know what will! I can’t wait to go back myself and I am so impressed with of all of the amazing work they’ve accomplished with the gardens.

Alcatraz: The Garden Tour, Part One

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If you’ve not yet had the opportunity to visit the Rock, I hope that you gardeners out there will want to see it soon. Its many restored gardens are unlike any others you’ve ever seen and the atmosphere is incredible. Free docent led garden tours are offered at 9:30am on Fridays and Sundays, but you have to be on the first boat out to the island. Purchase tickets in advance online though because they almost always sell out ahead of time.

Visits to the Rock are not always quite this warm and sunny but when they are, it makes the trip even more enjoyable. Don’t forget to pack some extra clothing too because the area can become windy.

The first plants you’ll see while you are still on the boat are the Century Plants, or Agave parryi.

During the garden tour our guide told us these were planted as a barrier by the early military posted on the island.
The trail that grants access to this area of the island is closed during most of the tourist season because of nesting birds. If you’d like to get up close and personal with these gentle giants you’ll have to plan a visit during the fall or winter months. That’s the only time during the year when the trail is open.
Aeonium species and hybrids as well as Jade Plants (Crassula argentea) can be seen all over the island.
This Australian Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) is most likely the oldest tree on the island. There are also several Dragon Trees (Dracaena draco) that were also planted by members of the military that were stationed here between 1850-1934.)


As you leave the dock and begin to walk up the Rock you are passing through the area with the oldest gardens on the island.

 Australian Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia).
The oldest Fuchsia on the Rock, this specimen is 70 years old.
A Monterey Cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) near the cellhouse.

One of the advantages of the garden tour is that you are taken off the beaten path to admire all of the hard work volunteers have done over the last decade or so as they’ve improved gardening conditions. An extra added plus is that you get to see this! It’s the official compost area on Alcatraz!

This compost has even won some ribbons at the Marin County Fair! What’s not to love about that right?

With the help of the The Garden Conservancy the program here has truly flourished.

Limited to using historically accurate plant materials what’s wonderful is that after all of the overgrowth was removed from many of the gardens long overshadowed plants and bulbs started to return. With each new discovery we’re all learning more and more about how the island’s occupants once gardened. It is also a testament to the hardiness of many of these plants.

This rose was one of the amazing plants to be rediscovered on the island. Actually, it is probably the most important rediscovery. It is what’s called the Welsh Rose and up until 2003 it was thought extinct. That’s when this specimen was discovered on the island! Since then propagation work has been done and work has continued.

Aeonium arboreum gone wild.

Just above the compost and greenhouse level on the east side of the island are the last rows of gardens that were created around and in between the houses that once stood above the citadel. During my last trip I’d wanted so badly to wander down to them but due to the narrowness of the stairways and the unevenness of the paving they are too unsafe for the general public to walk around so be sure to take a tour! That’s the only way to gain access to these areas.

The plants in these little alcoves are very much the plants of gardeners who wanted to cheer up their isolated little spot in the bay. They were the first gardens of Alcatraz, but certainly not the last.

Just beyond the terraced area is the last portion of the earliest gardens and it is a bit more windswept and wild since it is at the top. Like the area below it, the housing structure has lost its wood to fire of uncertain cause and all that remains is the concrete skeleton.

I was left with some great pictures from the top of the Rock.
Kenilworth Ivy (Cymbalaria muralis) hugging the warm wall.
The spent flower stalks of Century Plants (Agave americana).
Note how the Jade plant (Crassula ovata) has its trunk partially in the shade. This adaptation also allows the plant to remain protected from the wind.
The hummingbirds of Alcatraz.

I should add that many of these areas were maintained by the prisoners of the Federal Penitentiary era but I will say more about that tomorrow.

To be continued…

Volunteer Park Conservatory (Seattle): Part Two, The Cactus House

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Unfortunately I was unable to document all of the plants here, and there is a bit of a reason that I must fess up to right now. Due to my complete and total love for so many of these plants as houseplants, I did overload the capacity my home has for their maintenance and upkeep this past year. Let’s face it, there are only so many plants that can stand in the light, and I cannot care for them all—not yet at least.

Believe it or not, this Jade Tree was started from a large cutting back in 1916. Wow.