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  • Writer's pictureBridgette Macilwaine

Exploring Mt Etna landscape and flora

An incredible tour around Mt Etna with the Andy Sturgeon team in Sicily. Exploring the dry lava flows, lava cave and pioneer vegetation. Thanks to our very knowledgeable guides for the day - Sergio Cumitini and Valentina Tambourino.

Standing at 1600m from sea level on the historic magma flow from 18th century, these slopes are a crossing point where the vegetation from sea level meets with mountain vegetation. Flora depends on the altitude levels, whether that be agricultural crops, vineyards, nut trees,chestnut trees grown for wood harvesting, woodland and high mountain vegetation.

Several plants discussed on our walk included:

  • Rumex scutatus (small red flowers);

  • Tanacetum vulgare;

  • Anthemis aetnensis (Etna chamomile);

  • Adenocarpus (broom like shrubs);

  • Stereocaulon vesuvianum (snow lichen);

  • Cerastium tomentosum - small white flowers;

  • Umbilicus rupestris - green succulent seen within the cave;

  • Saponaria dell’Etna.

As it’s difficult for vegetation to grow within this environment, in areas of the lava and ash flows, there’s a few interesting plants which helps this process of plant development and growth along these slopes. The lichen Stereocaulon vesuvianum, appears first and begins to colonize the lava after about 10 years.

Astragalus siculus, which grows as a spreading low pillow plants which acts as a supporter for other plant life. Once Atragalus dies, the organic matter supports pine trees and other vegetation to grow from their place. Adenocarpos (The plants are broom like shrubs with bright yellow flowers) and Anthemis aetnensis (Etna chamomile) work as connectors, assisting other plants to gather and hold onto the soil. Adenocarpos is quite dense, and fast growing into a pillowlike form, acting as a mother plant for the growth of other species.


“In Catania it is said that Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, placed these cushions on Mount Etna to remind everyone that love and beauty can flourish even in the greatest impassability and disgust.”

Two stunning multistem trees grow well here:

  • Betula aetnensis - a primitive variety able to adapt to this environment, reaching 4 – 15m high;

  • Genista aetnensis – which grows as a shrub or large multistem tree, and as a pioneer species, prepares the ground for other plants. In the UK, they grow very slowly and prefer not to be transplanted.

Other trees include:

  • Pinus laricio;

  • Pinus nigra;

  • Populus nigra;

  • Quercus pubescens (Downy oak);

  • Quercus ilex (Holm oaks).

This east side of Mt Etna is the greenest section, as plants grow easily here from the humid sea air, whereas the west is a very different landscape – mainly very rocky and dry, a volcanic desert, the ash is continuous, and the pioneer vegetation struggle to get going, and start growth much lower down the slopes.

This large cave was formed during the lave flow, with the outside cooling and forming a crust, a solid dome, while the hot liquid below the outer shell keeps moving to form the cave within, Umbilicus rupestris, the green succulent shown here on the cave wall.


“Everything that is great in nature, everything that is pleasant, everything that is terrible, can be compared to Etna and Etna cannot be compared to anything. Dominique Vivand Denon - Voyage to Sicily, 1788”

We made our way across the winding landscape guided by Sergio and Valentina, up through the trees, opening to a lookout point over the landscape, with comfortable timber benches as a perfect resting spot for our group picnic, backed by a building constructed using local materials.

Segio shared that the last important flow was 2002, the strongest eruption of the last century, with the lava moving very slowly (about 1km a week), this flow reached the suburb of the village at the base of Mt Etna.

This lava section was visible from our standing point, looking into the distance, as seen in the landscape image below, the very barren and blackened dry lava stream down the mountainside.

The habitats here are mostly natural rather than managed, although there are certain elements which are monitored and all vegetation is protected, Populous tremulous is under management by forestry administration in Italy.

After an eruption, the first 100 years are the building up of layers, erosion and soil settling to create a base before vegetation can begin growth.


Thanks for reading, any questions we would love to hear from you!


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