Well hello again!
I’ve been off on my travels. It’s not very often I get abroad – the last time was circa 2009 – but what with the offer of some free accommodation, plus the serendipitous coincidence of two inset days right after half-term (meaning normal double-your-money school holiday flight prices didn’t apply) saw us jetting off to Sicily for a week.
All mentions of plants while in the company of my family are greeted with howls of protest, so I’ve learned from long experience to keep my mouth shut and botanise while simultaneously dodging suicidal Italian drivers and negotiating the tortuous streets of Sicily’s towns, littered on both sides with badly-parked cars as Sicily appears not to have noticed that there are such things as car parks.
I even had to ‘visit’ Syracuse’s botanic gardens – painfully tempting glimpsed through ornate metal railings – while hammering around in an incomprehensible guided tour of the city on a road train. I can’t help feeling it wasn’t entirely accidental that it was dark by the time I had a chance to go back to look round it properly.
What with plant identification at 30mph (70mph on long journeys into the island’s mountainous interior, always in the shadow of the ever-smoking Etna) and in silence, it’s perhaps not surprising that just two plants came to symbolise Sicily’s semi-tropical lush vegetation (palms, bougainvillea, hibiscus and of course lemon trees were everywhere).
The first is the prickly pear cactus – Opuntia ficus-indica – which grew wild along the roadsides, bubbling up in great thickets taller than your head, tumbling over supermarket carparks and encroaching on the beach.
They were in season while we were there, every flat green paddle topped with fat bright red fruit, so we tried a few: you peel them (first cutting off the painfully prickle-filled end plate) to find succulent red flesh studded with black seeds. Apparently these seeds are edible, though I found they were hard as bullets so we painstakingly picked them out to end up with a red mush which tasted of watermelon, though not quite as sweet. Pleasant, but not that remarkable.
The second plant which will always remind me of Sicily is a conifer, much to my amazement since I usually associate them with utter boredom and mind-numbingly difficult plant idents. Nothing boring about this one: the branches were tipped with fans of upward-facing branches, the whole tall conical structure topped with diminishing fans on the main trunk which swayed in the wind. It was so graceful, so exquisitely architectural that it completely won me over.
They were everywhere: right outside the flat we were staying in, and on the other side of the road, and another one beyond that, soaring into the sky and marching across the landscape like elegant sentinels. Unfortunately I haven’t the foggiest idea what they might be.
So: here’s your starter for ten. Using the frankly rubbish pictures on this page (taken on my phone, since I forgot to take my camera on holiday – a seasoned traveller I am not) – can anyone help me identify my mystery conifer? And then tell me where I can get one so it can become the first conifer I have ever deliberately planted instead of chopping down?
A virtual prickly pear juice smoothie to the sender of the first correct answer.