Wild Vegetables of Sicily


The wild taxa utilized as vegetables in Sicily (Italy): a traditional component of the Mediterranean diet

Geraci A, Amato F, Di Noto G, Bazan G, Schicchi R
J Ethnobiol Ethnomed. 2018 Feb 14;14(1):14
PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5813353

Investigators at Università degli Studi di Palermo, ARPA Sicilia, and Dipartimento Regionale dello Sviluppo Rurale e Territoriale – Regione Siciliana conducted an ethnobotanical field investigation to identify wild native species traditionally gathered and consumed as vegetables in Sicily and highlight new culinary uses of those plants.

From the introduction:

“Wild vegetables play a very important role in the diet of the people living in Sicily, an island located in the middle of the Mediterranean region. In the past, people used to go almost daily, especially during the winter and spring, to the countryside and the margins of cultivated fields and woods, looking for wild vegetables to eat. This alimentary habit derived substantially from the situation of poverty in which most of the rural and urban population lived. In the last 40 years, the eating habits of Sicilian people, like those of other populations living in Western countries, have greatly changed, and wild vegetable flavors are almost unknown to young people. The elderly and those who still have strong links with the country follow a strictly Mediterranean-style diet instead. They know the best gathering seasons for the wild vegetables, and they are able to recognize and cook them according to established traditional practices. In recent years, several studies on wild food plants have been carried out to preserve the traditional knowledge linked to their use in Sicily.”

Umbilicus rupestris
Umbilicus rupestris [Photo: sannse, Wikimedia Commons]
The team interviewed 980 people over the age of fifty — mainly farmers, shepherds, and experts on local traditions — in 187 towns and villages. They documented 253 species of wild vegetables, 72 of them eaten only in Sicily and 26 cited in this paper for the first time. Several so-called “ancient vegetables” were also included (Onopordum illyricum, Centaurea calcitrapa, Nasturtium officinale, Scolymus spp., Smyrnium rotundifolium). At least two species of wild vegetables, Umbilicus rupestris and Umbilicus horizontalis, are also known for uses in traditional medicine.

In their conclusion, the authors make an eloquent and compelling argument for conservation of these useful plants, and knowledge about them, as they are “healthy and authentic ingredients for local and ancient recipes” that are “fundamental to the revitalization of quality food strictly connected to traditional agroecosystems.”

“Wild vegetables, with the traditions, customs, and practices surrounding them, are a part of the Sicilian cultural heritage, which unfortunately every day is at risk of disappearing under the pressure of globalization. This situation may, in a few decades, lead to the loss of the knowledge acquired throughout the centuries by generations of farmers, herders, foresters and other people who lived closely together with nature. Such a loss would be very heavy because it would deprive the population of a food source of considerable interest from a qualitative point of view. Non-cultivated vegetables are rich in nutritional components that are often present in smaller quantities in species of cultivated varieties, which are selected for their high manufacturing yields. In times of possible food shortages, the population would no longer be able to identify the food resources available.

“In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in non-cultivated vegetables, for both cognitive and consumption reasons, because of the growing demand for healthy foods related to a specific territory that is connected to identity. Wild vegetables are, in fact, the best ambassadors of the site in which they live. They are able to please tourists through the many local culinary preparations, expressing a solid and layered cultural tradition. The latter represents the real added value of a raw material that is obtained in an environment unique in its biological characteristics, soil, climate, and history, and which can be considered as the most expressive and symbolic cradle of the Mediterranean diet.”

Read the complete article at PubMed Central.

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