Plant life on Mt. Etna, a trip around the map of the Etnean vegetation

Emilia Poli Marchese & Giuseppe Patti

The plant life on an active volcano as Mt. Etna is made up of different elements which diversify according to the varying of volcanic soil, climate and human activity. The changes in plant life according to the altitude are caused, above all, by varying of climatic factors and allow to recognise vegetation belts on the slopes of the volcano, each characterised by very specific types of the vegetation. Their distribution on the slopes of the volcano is shown on the Map of vegetation of Mt. Etna, on a scale of 1:50,000, drawn up by us (Poli Marchese and Patti, 2000). Basal-Mediterranean belt This belt extends from sea level up to 1,000-1,200 m a.s.l. and sometimes up to 1,400-1,500 m. Along the rocky coast there is a narrow belt of halophytic vegetation.

After leaving this zone the plant landscape is largely characterized by cultivated areas. Citrus field prevail down, up to 300-400 m a.s.l. Above there are principally vineyards, olive and almond groves, orchards and pistachio and hazel-nut groves. This landscape, heavily influenced by man, has long replaced the natural vegetation made up by the forests or scrub-forests with wild olive tree, on the lower slopes, and by olm oak (Quercus ilex) forests at higher altitudes. Just few pieces of these forests are still present; they can be found up to over 1,200 m a.s.l. At higher altitudes there is a belt mostly characterised by deciduous oak forests, where the Quercus pubescens s.l. oak species is dominant; in some areas these forests have been partially replaced by chestnut woods or orchards and vineyards. Next to these forests, or in their place, there are also forests of larch pines (Pinus laricio).

Mountain-Mediterranean belt Above the deciduous oak forests and up to the higher limit of forests (1,800-1,900 m a.s.l. and up to 2,300 m a.s.l.), there is the beech (Fagus sylvatica) belt. It is fragmentary distributed due to volcanic activity, climatic conditions and human disturbance. In some areas the beech is accompanied or replaced by the larch pines (Pinus laricio) or by the birch (Betula aetnensis), endemic species of Mt. Etna.
High-Mediterranean belt Above the tree line the plant life is characterized by a thorn pillows species (Astragalus siculus), endemic of Mt. Etna and well adapted to the local climate conditions. The thorn pillows shelter herbaceous species, some of which are endemic. This vegetation is exclusive of the Etna volcano. At 2400-2450 m a.s.l. and up to 2900-3000 m the vegetation is made up by very few and almost all endemic species; they are widespread in a discontinuous way. At 3000-3050 m a.s.l. and up to the top of Mt. Etna (3350 m) there is only the “volcanic desert”, where the plant life is totally absent.