In the panorama of Italian islands, the Aeolian Islands represent an extraordinary example of ecological, naturalistic and landscape diversity. Their volcanic origins, relatively recent, has strongly conditioned the structure of the vegetal landscape and the biological community that they house. Together with this, the presence of man, inhabiting the island around the end of the 5th millennium B.C., has deeply influenced since that time the placement of the territory.

In spite of the young geological age- esteemed for being the most ancient islands which are about 500-600 thousand years old – the archipelago is home to a descreet number of plants and endemic animals, exclusive to the terrain, which have evolved from the effect of isolation and, maybe, also thanks to the catastrophic volcanic events which could have accelerated the mechanisms connected to their differentiation.

Therefore, on three islands which are far from each other(Vulcano,Stromboli and Alicudi) we find today cytisus of the Aeolian Islands(Cytisus aeolicus), a family tree of the leguminosaeat one time probably spread also in the rest of the archipelago, as witness to the leaf fossils discovered years ago in the Timpone Pataso lake( in the western part of Lipari), resulting to be around 100 thousand years ago.Teofrasto already spoke of this species and it’s extraordinary virtues as a forager plant ,who called it “colutea”(or “colitia”) of Lipari; after centuries of oblivion, it’s rediscovery- as a work by partenopeo botanist Giovanni Gussone, who visited the Aeolian Islands in 1828- revealed to the scientific world that in these islands an authentic giant of the Cytisus type, grew and was capable of reaching heights greater than 8-9 metres, as opposed to the dimensions of the shrubs which characterize the more delicate species.

The news demanded such great attention that, through a network of exchanges and information already gathered around the middle of the 19th century, the seeds, in just a few years, reached European botanical gardens, and a certain Lindley, an English naturalist, could publish the first iconography of the “new” species in the columns of a British scientific magazine . But the cytisus was already rare at the time of it’s rediscovery: man had made wide use of it, as a forest resource, for the purpose of wood burning, pole-making and agricultural equipment , or simply eliminating forests to create space for agriculture, which in that century needed to sustain more than 20 thousand inhabitants(today the Aeolian Islands have about 12 thousand).

The cytisus of the islands, like many other species of animal and vegetation peculiar to this territory, has come close to extinction, and it’s survival represents an active commitment by the European Union, which has inserted it amongst the “priority” species of the Directive Habitat.

Not unlike, in fact, is the case of the wild carnation of Panarea(Silene hicesiae), a plant of the family of the cariofillacee, today confined to the cliffs north-west of the island, where it has been discovered during the eighties of the 20th century by botanist Salvatore Brullo. Regardless of its apparent blossoming, with floral dimensions higher than a metre which grow from a bud of perennial basal leaves, this plant has remained unknown in spite of the fact that many researchers have visited Panarea and Alicudi, where a small cultivation of the flower was begun only a few years ago.

The wild carnation and the cytisus are numbered both in a world population of only 500-600 examples, and represent, therefore ,a seriously threatened species. Other endemic elements,like the genista of the Tyrrhenean (Genista tyrrhena), which with great obstinance covers the slopes of the most arid and unstable craters of Vulcano and Stromboli,and which constitutes thick regions of bushland throughout the archipelago; or the iris of the Aeolian Islands (Centaurea aeolica),spreading from the coastal environments to the borders of the streets, to the most exposed cliffs, up until they dominate the entire vegetation of the area, like which occurs on the slopes of Stromboli, around the observatory of Point Labronzo.

At one time extensively cultivated, today a great part of the Aeolian islands offers a splendid example of how spontaneous vegetation, if left undisturbed, can re-colonize the abandoned lines and terraces in a brief period of time.

There is a thick growth of shrubbery in the most elevated areas, characterized by an absolute dominance of arbute-berry(Arbutus unedo) and heather(Erica arborea), which sometimes is accompanied by magestic chestnuts (Castanea sativa), as in the case of Mount Fossa of the Felci and Salina; the southern slopes, less damp and more isolated, where often euphorbia arborescent(Euphorbia dendroides) grow, which between spring and summer reflect with a variety of many different colours and shades between their various phases of vegetation( from a greenish yellow of the flowers to the bright red of the mature plant in late spring, to the bare aspect of the hotter season ); in other cases, grass areas and graminacee, which at the beginning of spring are intensified by the blossoming of the anemone (Anemone hortensis) and of numerous species of wild orchids.

In this context, also the fauna is of marked importance. Lightly populated by mammals and reptiles, even though there is the interesting presence of the endemic lizard exclusive to few islands, the Aeoilan Islands are the reign of birds.

Their permanent communities are renew species like the Dartford warbler(Sylvia undata), linked to the tree heath and considered quite rare, but which here constitute a healthy population in the dense shrubbery of Lipari, Salina, Panarea and Filicudi; the falcone of the queen (Falco eleonorae), the only colony of falcons of our fauna, which returns to the falsie of the Aeolian Islands every summer, after a long migration to Madagasgar; the imperial raven or crow (Corvus corax), present with an extraordinary density of population in the archipelago.

But it is during the springtime and autumnal migratory passages when one can witness an exceptional concentration of species, when the sky of the islands is thick with flocks of honey buzzards that take advantage of the rising currents in slow circumnavigation on the volcanoes and slopes, of herons and little egrets resting on the rocks or in the small lake Salmastro of Point Lingua(a Salina), of thousands of swifts which incessantly come close to the ground in search of small prey, and the list could go on at length.

The conservation and care of the extraordinary naturalistic heritage of the Aeolian Islands is entrusted today to a system of protected areas, which are linked in areas almost covering 50% of the territory of the archipelago.

Alicudi,Filicudi, Panarea and Stromboli, together with the satellite islands, are Oriented and Integrated Natural Reserves entrusted in the last few years to the management of the Forest Demesnial Firm of the Sicilian Region; Salina, the first Natural Reserve instituted in the Aeolian Islands, is instead directed by the Provence of Messina.

The next stages should be the institution of other reserves on the islands of Lipari and Vulacno and, ultimately, that of a protected marine area which includes the entire archipelago.
To discover these and other elements of the natural history of the archipelago, the Nesos Association organizes excursions and a vast range of activities linked to natural and environmental resources of the Aeolian Islands, involving the visitor in a new season of research for the perfection and expansion of the awareness available on the area today.

Pietro Lo Cascio
Associazione Nesos