Etna is an outstanding natural history laboratory and one of the areas of greatest naturalistic interest of the mediterranean basin. The botany of this park is remarkable for several reasons that I will illustrate in this page.
Unique vegetation landscape
This volcano has extensive areas covered with vegetation, despite much of the territory is frequently crossed by lava flows that destroy everything in their path. The volcanoes of the mid-latitudes usually do not have large areas covered with vegetation. On the contrary there are some glimpses of the Etna landscape where the vegetation is so lush to remember the landscapes of some tropical volcanoes. The contrast between the green woods and the dark recent lava fields creates an unique landscape that often surprises visitors.Then this volcano offers a great botanical diversity that manifests itself not only changing altitude but also moving to one side to the other of the park.
Extended blooming season
If you think the landscape of a volcano has to be a monotonous succession of lava deserts, you will be surprised by the coloring of Etna landscape! In fact here there is a very extended period of blooms that occurs in different seasons at different altitudes, therefore much of the year this volcano can be seen adorned by the beautiful colors of the flowers.
Etna is also rich in endemic species unique of this park. In fact Etna has formed an habitat so extreme that many plants and trees have had to change their characteristics to adapt and survive, transforming themselves in species existing only in this area. During a naturalistic excursion we will be pleased to show you some of the endemisms of the park and to provide detailed informations about them. Here few examples :
The Anthemis aetnensis and the Senecio aetnensis beautiful plants so adapted to this environment to be the only two able to survive incredibly up to 3050 m. above the sea level. Worth to be remembered also the Rumex aetnensis, the Cerastium aetneum, the Berberis aetnensis, the Sclerantus aetnensis, the Viola aetnensis, etc.
Altimetric distribution of vegetation
The variety of Etna’s flora mirrors the presence of several climatic zones that go from the sea level to the summit.
The lower one is Basal-Mediterranean zone (from 0 to 1400m.). This is the area with greatest botanical diversity that stretches from mediterranean scrub and evolves into a wood of holm oaks (Quercus hilex), chestnuts (Castanea sativa), deciduous oaks (mostly Quercus pubescens) and Genista aetnensis. It is usually divided in three different belts: Therm med., Meso med. and Supra med.
Then there is the Mountain-Mediterranean zone (from 1400 to 2000/2200 m.) that goes up to the timberline. In this belt you have a very peculiar forest that survived the glacial period of the Würm (that finished about 10k years ago) evolving independently. There the Pine tree (Pinus nigra laricio), tree originally typical of large pre-glacial forests of Europe that during the last glaciation migrated southward. Today is present only here in Corsica and in Calabria. There is the Beech tree (Fagus sylvatica), another glacial relict, that has a high botanic relevance because the european beech forest here reaches the lowest latitude and the highest altitude! There is also the endemic Birch tree (Betula aetnensis) the third glacial relict that found refuge around the volcano during the last ice age and then evolved in a such different way that is unique of this park.
Going higher in altitude we find the High-Mediterranean zone that stretches from the timberline (about 2000 m.) to the limit of survival of pioneer plants (3050 m.), the beginning of the high altitude volcanic desert. From the altitude where the trees do not find any longer the conditions to survive, starts an extraordinary belt of vegetation, the Astragaletum siculi, made of endemic plants very specialized. A similar vegetation is so peculiar that is not found anywhere else in the world! The name is taken from the endemic plant Astragalus siculus that forms typical low thorny bushes. Above 2500 m. all the way to 3050 the vegetation becomes increasingly sparse until you find only few isolated pioneer endemic plant, “engineered” to survive to the most extreme habitat of Mt. Etna. Above this limit there is the high altitude rocky desert where the extraordinary energy of this volcano is expressed in such an extreme way that any form of plant life is impossible.