Thursday, 19 January 2017

Forty-five years later: The shifting dynamic of traditional ecological knowledge on Pantelleria Island, Italy

Economic Botany
pp 1–14

  • Cassandra L. Quave
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • Alessandro Saitta
    • 4
  1. 1.Center for the Study of Human HealthEmory University College of Arts and SciencesAtlantaUSA
  2. 2.Emory HerbariumEmory University College of Arts and SciencesAtlantaUSA
  3. 3.Department of DermatologyEmory University School of MedicineAtlantaUSA
  4. 4.Department of Agricultural and Forest SciencesUniversity of PalermoPalermoItaly
DOI: 10.1007/s12231-016-9363-x
Cite this article as:
Quave, C.L. & Saitta, A. Econ Bot (2016). doi:10.1007/s12231-016-9363-x


In 1969, Galt and Galt conducted an ethnobotanical survey in the community of Khamma on the volcanic island of Pantelleria, Italy. Since then, a number of botanical studies concerning the local wild flora and cultivation of the zibibbo grape and capers have been conducted, but none have investigated traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) regarding the use of wild plants and fungi. We documented the current TEK and practices concerning wild plants and fungi on the island, focusing on uses related to food and medicine with 42 in-depth interviews in six communities in June 2014. Our aim was to examine shifts in TEK, represented in terms of loss or gain of specific species uses, in comparison to the 1969 study. All interviews were conducted in person in Italian with prior informed consent. We employed two primary means of eliciting responses concerning traditional practices; informants were asked to: 1) free-list the most commonly used plants for wild foods, general medicine, and skin remedies; and 2) view and discuss a booklet composed of photos of species reported in the Galt and Galt study. In total, 86 botanical and 19 fungal species representing 53 families were cited. While many plant-based traditions have disappeared from daily practice, especially those related to traditional fishing and hunting, they remain in the memories of the eldest subset of the population. For example, one of the most pervasive species in the landscape, Opuntia ficus-indica, has current day uses that persist as a food source, but its past applications were much more diverse, and included manipulation into hunting snares for birds. Other predominant flora included a number of Euphorbia spp., whose toxic latex was regularly used as a fish poison. Fungi, on the other hand, nowadays represent an important source of wild food. In conclusion, we documented a decline in knowledge and practice of TEK related to ritual healing, livestock rearing, hunting and fishing practices and an increase in TEK concerning newly introduced edible fungi.

Key Words

Mediterraneanmedicinal plantsDaphne gnidiumMalva arboreaOpuntia ficus-indicaedible fungiSicily

Abstract (Italiano)

Nel 1969, Galt e Galt hanno condotto un’indagine etnobotanica presso la comunità di Khamma dell’isola vulcanica di Pantelleria, in Italia. Da allora, sono stati condotti una serie di studi botanici riguardanti la flora spontanea locale e la coltivazione della vite zibibbo ed i capperi, ma nessuno ha eseguito indagini relative alle conoscenze ecologiche tradizionali (TEK) per quanto riguarda l’uso delle piante selvatiche e dei funghi. Abbiamo documentato le attuali TEK e le pratiche sugli usi delle piante spontanee e dei funghi dell’isola, focalizzando l’attenzione sugli usi come alimento ed in campo medico, grazie a 42 interviste approndite, condotte in sei comunità nel giugno del 2014. Il nostro scopo era di esaminare i cambiamenti nelle TEK, rappresentati in termini di perdita o acquisizione dell’uso specifico di alcune specie, in confronto con lo studio del 1969. In totale, 86 specie di piante e 19 specie fungine incluse in 53 famiglie sono state citate dagli intervistati. Nonostante molte tradizioni legate alle piante siano scomparse dalla pratica quotidiana, in particolare quelle legate alla pesca tradizionale e la caccia, esse rimangono nei ricordi degli individui più anziani della popolazione. Ad esempio, una delle specie più diffuse nel paesaggio, Opuntia ficus-indica, viene oggi utilizzata esclusivamente come fonte di cibo, ma le sue applicazioni in passato erano molto più diversificate, e comprendevano anche la costruzione di trappole per la cattura di piccoli uccelli. La flora comprende un rilevante numero di Euphorbia spp., il cui lattice tossico veniva utilizzato come veleno per i pesci. I funghi, oggi rappresentano esclusivamente una fonte di cibo naturale. In conclusione, abbiamo osservato un declino relativamente alla conoscenza e la pratica di TEK relative alla medicina rituale, all'allevamento, alla caccia ed alla pesca, ed un incremento delle TEK che riguarda l‘utilizzo di funghi eduli.


Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) has been identified as a key resource for community resilience in the face of environmental change by both promoting capacity for coping with change and supporting community cohesion in the face of extremes (e.g., Gómez-Baggethun et al. 2012; Quave and Pieroni 2015). TEK has been defined as “a cumulative body of knowledge, practices, and beliefs evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relation of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment” (Berkes 1993). It can play a crucial adaptive role in community response to change (Berkes et al. 2000) and as such has been the focus of much research, especially in the field of ethnobotany. A common theme in many ethnobotanical studies has been an observation of TEK loss due to the lack of transmission of knowledge between living elder and younger generations and trends towards adoption of Western lifestyles following further integration into market economies. For example, in Italy, TEK loss has been reported for the domains of plant-based medicines (e.g., Pieroni et al. 2004; Savo et al. 2011; Tuttolomondo et al. 2014), foods (e.g., Pieroni et al. 2002; Vitalini et al. 2013), and agroecosystems (e.g., Savo et al. 2014). Investigations into TEK loss have focused on documenting this knowledge before it disappears from oral history, investigating the processes and drivers of TEK loss, and examining the collateral impact on biocultural diversity (Gómez-Baggethun et al. 2012).
Here, we take advantage of a unique opportunity to examine TEK in an isolated island population that was previously studied nearly half a century ago. To be exact, an ethnobotanical survey was conducted in the community of Khamma on the island of Pantelleria in 1969 with the aim of documenting traditional practices in the domains of food, agriculture, medicine, and maritime activities (Galt and Galt 1978). Since then, a number of botanical and economic studies concerning the local wild flora and cultivation of the zibibbo grape and capers have been conducted (e.g., Calò et al. 2013; Fici and Gianguzzi 1997; Galt 1979; Tudisca et al. 2011), but none have addressed TEK of wild plants and fungi on the island. Here, 45 years later, we revisit this topic, documenting the remaining TEK concerning wild plants and fungi for food, health, and other economic and household applications. The central aim of this study is to investigate which TEK of species uses have survived in both practice and memory of native Pantescans. We hypothesize that TEK loss over this period will be minimal and that at least 80% of previously documented species uses will remain either in memory or practice today.


Study Site

Pantelleria is a small volcanic island located in the Mediterranean Sea, situated approximately 95 km south of Sicily and 67 km north of Tunisia (Northern Africa), located between N 36° 44.03′–N 36° 50.20′ and E 11° 57.16′–N 12° 03.30′ (Fig. 1). Belonging to the Province of Trapani (Sicily), it is the largest of the Sicilian isles and populated by roughly 7,000 inhabitants and visited by tourists who come to the island to enjoy its numerous natural attractions such as the Specchio di Venere, a geothermally heated lake with healing muds, archeological sites such as the Byzantine tombs, and local foods and beverages such as capers and the passito wine. Pantelleria is very biodiverse with flora distributed across 73 families, including several endemic species: Genista aspalathoides var. gussonei Boiss., Helichrysum rupestre var. errerae DC., Limonium secundirameum (Lojac.) Greuter & Burdet, L. cosyrense Kuntze, L. parvifolium (Tineo) Pignatti, Matthiola incana subsp. pulchella (L.) W.T. Aiton, Medicago truncatula var. cosyrensis Gaertn., Senecio leucanthemifolius var. cosyrensis Phil., and Trifolium nigrescens subsp. nigrescens var. dolychodon Viv. (Gianguzzi 1999). The territory can be divided into three different bioclimatic belts. The inframediterranean semiarid (0–200 m.a.s.l.), the thermomediterranean dry (200–450 m.a.s.l.), and the mesomediterranean sub-humid. The last bioclimatic belt characterizes the highest part of Montagna Grande (>600 m.a.s.l.). The first belt is mainly characterized by maquis. The second belt includes evergreen broadleaves with Quercus ilex L. dominated forests, Erica arborea L., and Arbutus unedo L., and the third is dominated by pine forests (Pinus halepensis Mill. and Pinus pinaster subsp. hamiltonii (Ten.) Lindl. & Gordon (Gianguzzi 2003).
Fig. 1
Map of the study area. Image adapted from Google Earth (
This study location provided a unique opportunity for studying the role of TEK in an isolated and climatically harsh environment. Some key environmental factors that locals dealt with in the past included scarce access to fresh water, with the only source in the past for personal use coming from very limited rainfall collected using the roof architecture typical of the dammuso, which is constructed in stone and volcanic rock and features a white-rounded roof with connections to an underground cistern (Constantino 2010). Nowadays, freshwater is delivered to the island by ship. In all aspects of local cultivation, much effort is placed on optimizing the use of limited rainfall and protecting plants from the harsh winds and sun. In response to these environmental factors, local TEK has developed over time and its implementation is visible across the landscape. Volcanic rocks are stacked to form terrace gardens and vineyards, with once crucial citrus trees protected from the winds by circular towers of volcanic rock (Fig. 2). Olive trees are protected from the wind by heavy pruning such that they grow low to the ground, never exceeding the height of an adult person. Likewise, grapevines are cultivated in individual conical trenches dug into the ground, and each section of vineyard is surrounded by volcanic rock terrace walls. Certain wild plant species are collected and used to provide shade to seedlings, while others are used to deter pests that could damage fruit trees. Poisonous spurges were once used to fish, while other wild species were used to create hunting tools. Collectively, this body of TEK was crucial to human survival in this environment in the past, and a central aim of this study was to document remaining TEK in the collective memory and practice of native Pantescans today.
Fig. 2
Pantelleria is renowned for its Pantescan gardens. Volcanic rock towers protect citrus trees from strong winds and short walls cover the landscape as both a support for terraces and to protect grape vines from the wind. a A side view of the volcanic rock towers for citrus trees with rock terrace vineyards in the background. b The towers are left open on top for the trees to access sunshine and rain. Each tower has a small entryway for people to access the fruit.

Field Study

A total of 42 in-depth interviews (typically lasting 2 h in duration) were conducted in June 2014 in the city center of Pantelleria and several small communities located across the island: Khamma, Bugeber, Scauri, Sibà, and Rekhale. All interviews were conducted in person in Italian by CLQ and AS. Study informants were recruited with the assistance of introductions by the Municipality of Pantelleria and via snowball sampling methods. We aimed to target a mix of informants from various economic activities, based in agriculture, maritime practices, household work, etc. One elderly female informant was a traditional healer in the past. Interviews were limited to native Pantescans who have lived the majority of their life on the island. We included both individual and small group (two to three informants) interviews in the study. In the case of group interviews, special care was taken to accurately document which informants spontaneously cited species information and when there was consensus or disagreement concerning Pantescan names and uses of the cited species. Prior informed consent was always verbally obtained prior to conducting interviews, and the ethical standards of the Society for Economic Botany and International Society of Ethnobiology were followed (International Society of Ethnobiology 2006). We employed two primary means of eliciting responses concerning traditional practices; informants were asked to do the following:
  1. (1)
    Free-list the most common uses of wild plants or fungi for foods, general medicinal remedies, remedies for the skin (infections, burns, or inflammations), and diarrhea; this followed the methodology described by Quinlan (2005), in which informants were asked to list plants and fungi and their uses in narrow cognitive domains; and
  2. (2)
    Participate in semi-structured interviews complemented with a booklet composed of photos of 28 fungi and 93 plants (74 of which were reported in the study by Galt and Galt 1978) to elicit responses concerning local names and uses across multiple cognitive domains (e.g., concerning agricultural practices, food, medicine, ethnoveterinary practices, hunting, fishing, etc.). This technique was employed to specifically capture any remaining knowledge of the previously reported plant uses reported by Galt and Galt (1978).
For the purpose of clarity, individual “use citations” refers to each mention of a plant or fungus use by an informant. Use citation data encompassed local name(s), part(s) used, mode(s) of preparation, mode(s) of application, intended use or purpose, and information concerning the folkloric value or relevance to local traditions. The term “species use” refers to either a unique use citation by a single individual informant or a group of matching “use citations” given by multiple informants. All use citation data were collated and organized in Microsoft Excel into species use groups for statistical analysis described below.
Digital photographs and voucher specimens were taken for all available wild cited species. Vouchers were deposited in the Herbarium Lucanum (HLUC) at the Università della Basilicata in Potenza, Italy, and the Emory University Herbarium (GEO) in Atlanta, GA, USA. Specimens were digitized by GEO and have been made available on the SERNEC portal (Southeastern Biota 2016). Herbarium specimens of all cited plant species were shipped to Emory under the USDA/APHIS permit PCIP-14-003388. Plant identification follows the standard Italian flora (Pignatti 2002), and family assignments follow the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group III (Stevens 2012). Fungal nomenclature follows MycoBank (2016).

Data Analysis

Informant Consensus Factor

The categories selected for use in the informant consensus factor (Fic) analysis are provided in Table 1 and follow the system described by Heinrich et al. (1998). Each species use was added to the appropriate category prior to analysis using the following formula:
where Nuc is the total number of use citations in each category and Nt is the number of species used in that category. High Fic values (near 1.0) are obtained when one or a few species are reported to be used by a large proportion of informants for a particular category, whereas lower Fic values indicate that informants disagree over which species to use.
Table 1
Examples of indications
General category of use
Edible plants and fungi, cooked or raw ingredients, ingredient substitutes (e.g., coffee substitute), and flavoring for liqueurs and grappa, snacks, and seasoning
Games, cleaning tools, decoration (indoor and outdoor), fire starter, home construction, window shade, baskets, agricultural tools, fencing, dyes, insect deterrent, ink, protectant, fiber source, and pest repellent
Fishing tools, fish poison, and boat construction
Pest plant (thorny, poisonous), problematic for people or livestock, cause of allergies, cause of contact dermatitis, and skin irritant
“Healthy” fodder, forage, laxative, and digestive aide
Human medicinal uses
Lacerations and bleeding wounds, weak hair, burn wounds, abscesses, skin and soft tissue infections, skin inflammation, and hair loss
Constipation, stomachache, colic, digestive aide, intestinal helminths, and diarrhea
 General health
To strengthen constitution, general wellness, refreshing beverage, “healthy” beverage or food (folk-functional food)
 Musculoskeletal and neurological
Arthritis, rheumatism, and bruises
 Oral health
Tuberculosis, cough, and colds
Urinary tract infection, kidney stones, and diuretic

Fidelity Level

The fidelity level (FL) percent measure was used to identify the central role of each reported species (Friedman et al. 1986). The FL was defined as the ratio of between the total number of informants that independently cited a specific species use (Nt) and the total number of informants (N) that cited the species for any use:
The primary limitation of this method is that for species with only a few citations (≤3), the fidelity level may appear to be artificially high. Thus, species with three or less citations were excluded from this analysis.

Use-Value Citation Index

The use-value (UVc) citation index, which is useful for evaluating the relative importance of each species based on its cited uses, was calculated for all species (de Albuquerque et al. 2007). Briefly, it is calculated as follows:
where Uis is the sum of the total number of all individual use citation reports concerning a given species, divided by the total number of informants (N).


A total of 95 plant species and 17 fungal species, representing 44 and 9 botanical and fungal families, respectively, were cited by the 42 study participants. The age of informants ranged from 28 to 90, with a median age of 64 and gender distribution of 59.5% male and 40.5% female. Data on 2,124 use citations were collected, representing a total of 297 distinct sets of communal knowledge regarding specific species (Electronic Supplementary Material (ESM) Appendix 1). Here, we report the findings from our analysis of the ethnobiological data reported by study participants.

Informant Consensus Analysis

Ethnobotanical use reports were divided into six general categories and six human medicine subcategories (Table 1). The greatest number of species reported for a single category was for food (52 species), followed by household uses (41) and human medicine (31), Table 2. The greatest number of use citations was for food uses (795), followed by household (497) and medical uses (342). All general categories had relatively high levels of informant consensus (>0.85), with the greatest consensus concerning species used for food (Fic  = 0.936), household (0.919), and medical (0.912) purposes. Importantly, categories pertaining to the direct use of plants or fungi as food or in the procurement of food (e.g., for fishing, hunting, or agricultural tools) exhibited the highest levels of informant consensus overall.
Table 2
Number of species (Nt)
Number of use citations (Nuc)
Informant’s consensus factor (Fic)
Category of local use
 Human medicine
Subcategories of human medicine
 General health
 Musculoskeletal and neurological
 Oral health
 Otolaryngological and respiratory
Overall total
When the species cited for use in human medicine were broken down into more detailed subcategories, however, differences in consensus levels emerged. For example, Fic values for oral health (1.0) and gastrointestinal (0.919) subcategories were quite high, while consensus concerning musculoskeletal and neurological (0.727) and especially otolaryngological and respiratory (0.333) was much lower. Overall, the most species and use citations were reported for dermatological (17 species, 88 use citations) and gastrointestinal (12 species, 137 use citations) subcategories.

Fidelity Level Analysis

Fidelity level (FL) analysis is useful for identifying the central role of each species. This can be particularly useful when an individual species has multiple reported means of preparation and use. For example, Rubus ulmifolius Schott. was cited for both food uses and dermatological applications. Reports differed in how the fruits are used as food: 50% of use citations were to eat the fruits raw, 40% to make marmalades, 7% to make liquors, and 3% to use the leaves to treat skin infections. FL percentages for each species are reported in ESM, Appendix 1.
TEK concerning food and tools for its procurement was most frequently cited by informants for individual species. For example, fidelity levels for plants with citations in multiple use categories (e.g., Rubus ulmifolius, Ferula communis L., Drimia maritima (L.) Stearn, Arbutus unedo, and Euphorbia dendroides L.) were often highest for food and household or maritime categories (related to food procurement). This observation highlights the importance of the local flora and fungi to Pantescans as a critical part of their food culture and major contributor to food sovereignty on the island.

Use-Value Citation Analysis

Use-value citation indices were calculated for all reported species, allowing for comparison of the overall rank or importance of species for local people (ESM, Appendix 1). The mean UV score for fungal species was 0.335 and 0.464 for plants, with no statistically significant difference between the two groups. The most highly ranking species had UVc indices >1.8 and included Quercus ilex (UVc= 2.548), Opuntia ficus-indica (L.) Mill. (2.429), Foeniculum vulgare Mill. (2.143), and Malva arborea L. (1.857).
Use-value indices provided critical insight into which species were most broadly cited by informants, and at the highest scores, they also reflect species importance in terms of utility for multiple applications. The highest ranking species were also abundantly available on the island, growing either wild or semi-cultivated through periodic management (e.g., see later discussion on Opuntia ficus-indica).


Comparison with Galt and Galt 1969 Survey

Galt and Galt (1978) documented 107 specific uses of local botanical species in their 1969 survey. Of these, 45 (representing 42% of original species use citations) were not quoted by any informants in our 2014 survey, refuting our hypothesis that at least 80% of the previously documented species uses would remain in local memory or practice. Those uses that were documented in both studies are underlined in ESM, Appendix 1.
Many of the previously reported species uses that have disappeared from the memory and practice of Pantescans today pertained to one of three key cognitive domains: animal feed (often with ethnoveterinary implications), plants specific to war time (referring to World War II), and spiritual illnesses (e.g., scantu fright disease and malocciu evil-eye). For example, species previously indicated for livestock included Polypodium vulgare L. (cow feed and galactagogue), Urtica pilulifera L. (chicken bedding and to stimulate egg production), Silene nicaeensis All. (livestock feed), Genista cinerea DC (goat feed), Lotus corniculatus L. (livestock feed and eaten by children as snacks), Rhamnus alaternus L. (goat feed and galactagogue), Chrysanthemum coronarium L. (Syn. Of C. segatum, livestock feed), and Calendula arvensis L. (cattle feed). War time species included Carpobrotus edulis (L.) N.E. Br. (camouflage during WWII), Verbascum undulatum M. Bieb, and V. sinuatum L. (tobacco substitutes). Species previously used to treat spiritual illnesses included Ruta chalepensis L. (for scantu, fright sickness), Rosmarinus officinalis L. (for malocciu, evil-eye), and Marrubium vulgare L. (for scantu). This could be indicative of declines in practices related to these three domains. For example, WWII has long since passed and there is no need for camouflage or tobacco substitutes. The changes in TEK pertaining to livestock rearing could be the result of local economic shifts away from agropastoralism. Furthermore, disappearing practices concerning ritualistic healing are likewise reflected in loss of TEK for ingredients used in these ceremonies.
On the other hand, an additional 235 specific uses of local flora and fungi were recorded in the present work, which were not included in the original study. This number of newly documented species uses both attests to the robust nature of our investigation into local TEK and reflects differences in methodologies between studies. A limitation in the study design includes the lack of detailed information in the Galt and Galt (1978) report regarding the original set of informants (number, gender, age, specialist, or non-specialist) and the lack of consensus analysis for the species reported, which would be useful to better understand how diffuse TEK was among the study in the past. However, based on the existing data from both studies, we can approach the analysis from the perspective that while there was significant loss in TEK as evidenced by species uses no longer in the memory or practice of today, there were potentially also some gains—especially regarding newly introduced fungi. Here, we delve into a few specific examples of how TEK has shifted in this region over the past 45 years.

Spiritual Illnesses and the Loss of TEK

There is a local saying concerning the use of Ruta chalepensis L.: “Aruta ogni mal astuta,” which translates roughly to “The ruta destroys every disease.” Interestingly, however, while several informants cited this saying when shown images of R. chalepensis, they were unable to describe how aruta was used or even for which illnesses it was once used for. Today, there is some knowledge of the use of aruta in flavoring grappa, but this is not a local practice as grappa is not made in any great quantities by households here, but rather represents an imported piece of knowledge, likely brought here by the visiting tourists from northern Italy or other means, such as television programs on this topic.
Likewise, while there is still knowledge of some of the basic causative parameters concerning scantu, a spiritual illness which involves an event involving a shock to the person (such as fear or surprise from an encounter with a snake), little was known about the means of treatment. Several informants cited the diagnostic practice of taking measurement of the body with a string (from the head to the toe, and then from the fingertip to fingertip), and if the measurements do not match up, you may have scantu. The means of healing scantu, however, involved the intervention of specialist healers who used prayers and rituals involving plants, and it was reported repeatedly that all of these healers have passed away, some as recently as 5 years ago.
Interestingly, a similar diagnostic process involving body measurement with a string was documented for another folk illness, known as mal d’arco or “rainbow illness,” in the Basilicata province of southern Italy (Quave and Pieroni 2005). In mal d’arco, another species of Ruta (R. graveolens L.) is used in the treatment of the malady and involves drinking a tea of rue. Folk beliefs concerning causation of mal d’arco differs from scantu, however, in that it is believed to be transmitted by looking at a rainbow while urinating outdoors and is not linked to a fright event.

Edible Fungi

While the topic of fungi was not covered in the Galt and Galt (1978) study in Pantelleria, we nevertheless consider these findings important for inclusion in the present work, as they provide another perspective on TEK of wild edibles. There are five fungi that were readily recognized by the majority of informants: Agaricus arvensis Schaeff., Boletus aereus Bull., Cantharellus lutescens (Pers.) Fr., Lactarius deliciosus (L.) Gray, and Suillus collinitus Kuntze. The cited species are all frequently collected by Pantescans. All the species cited belong to the ecological category of ectomycorrhizal fungi, except the saprotrophic A. arvensis. Three of these species grow exclusively in a pine forest: C. lutescens, L. deliciosus, and S. collinitus. All are used as food by Pantescans, and with the recent institution of courses on fungi identification in the last 10 years, their use is gradually increasing. Based on current trends, we predict that in the coming years, more edible species growing in Pantelleria will be appreciated as food, thanks to the interest showed by Pantescans for the identification of wild fungi that was prompted by outreach activities of local environmental associations.

Edible Wild Plants

There are a number of wild plants that serve as sources of food for the local population. The most commonly free-listed wild foods included Foeniculum vulgareUfl = 21), Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima (L.) Thell. (13), Sonchus oleraceus L. (13), Taraxacum officinale F.H. Wigg (13), and Rosmarinus officinalis L. (7). However, following visual cues of the photo book, other species emerged with high frequency of citation: Foeniculum vulgareUis = 90), Rubus ulmifolius (58), Rosmarinus officinalis (39), Myrtus communis L. (38), Borago officinalis L. (36), Arbutus unedo (34), Opuntia ficus-indica (25), Portulaca oleracea L. (25), Asparagus acutifolius L. (25), Castanea sativa Mill. (24), Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima (24), and Taraxacum officinale (22).
Foeniculum vulgare was clearly the most cited wild food plant, both in the free-listing exercise and in response to the visual cue. It was reported as being eaten as a spice ingredient (seeds or flowers) or as a boiled vegetable when the plant is young. Rubus ulmifolius was the second most cited wild food plant, but, interestingly, was not mentioned as a food source during the free-listing exercise—and only mentioned after seeing the visual cue. Food uses of these two species, along with several others (Spinacia oleracea L., Borago officinalis, Asparagus acutifolius, Cichorium intybus L., Opuntia ficus-indica, Arbutus unedo, Rosmarinus officinalis, Antirrhinum tortuosum Bosc. Ex Vent., Portulaca oleracea and Nicotiana glauca Graham), were also reported in the Galt and Galt (1978) study, providing clear examples of wild food uses that have persisted over the last half century.
One of the most interesting and common accounts concerning wild plant foods documented during our study concerned the fruits of Arbutus unedo (strawberry tree), locally known as mbriacula, which when pronounced in the local dialect sounds similar to ubriaco, or drunken. Many cited this as a favored plant, whose fruits are eaten raw off of the trees during the time of the olive harvest. Universally, informants recounted that moderation was necessary when eating this fruit, because consumption of too many could result in drunkenness and euphoria, but also digestive issues (stomachache and diarrhea). This may be due to initiation of the fermentation process of the mature fruits while still on the tree. Indeed, the fruits are used to create spirits in other parts of the Mediterranean (e.g., Aguardente de Medronho in Portugal, Aguardiente de Madroño in Spain, Corbezzolo in Italy, Koumaro in Greece, and Raki in Albania), but this use was not documented here (Botelho et al. 2015).

Medicinal Plants

“Ciuri di marva”: Malva arborea

Of all species cited during the free-listing stage of the interview process, Malva arborea was the most frequently mentioned (UVc = 1.857). The phrase “ciuri di marva” translates to “flowers of mallow,” and this species can be found both growing spontaneously in the countryside and, most frequently, in family gardens or near the home. The most common preparation of this plant is to harvest the flowers and dry them for storage and later use in a variety of tisanes—either on their own or in combination with other species, depending on the medical ailment being treated. The most frequently cited use (FL = 54%) is as a tisane for stomachache and to relieve constipation. Another interesting use came from accounts of “panuzzo di marva,” a practice recalled from childhood in which the seed coats were peeled off and sucked on as a sweet snack. While other wild Malva species occur on the island (e.g., M. nicaeensis All. and M. sylvestris L.) and have some similar reported uses, M. arborea is the overwhelming favorite.

“Mastru Ggiuvanni”: Daphne gnidium

Daphne gnidium L. was another frequently mentioned medicinal plant (UVc  = 1.262), but which also had uses in other general categories (ethnoveterinary and household uses). This species grows at higher elevations on the island and is most commonly collected on the centrally located volcanic mountain, known as Montagna Grande. The most common use (FL = 53%) is to peel off the flexible bark and use is to wrap minor lacerations as a hemostatic (Fig. 3). Another interesting use is as an insect repellent, in which branches are tossed into dog pens to rid them of fleas.
Fig. 3
Daphne gnidium, locally known as “mastru Giovanni,” grows at higher elevations along the slopes of the highest peak on the island. While known to be deadly if consumed by humans or animals, it is highly valued as a medicinal plant. a The whole branches are tossed into dog pens to repel ticks and fleas. b The pliable stem bark is removed and used to wrap small lacerations for its hemostatic properties.

Plants for Household Use

Agricultural Tools

Capparis spinosa subsp. rupestris L. (wild capers) are semi-cultivated across the island and then brine fermented both for personal use and for export and sale. The cultivated Vitis vinifera L. (zibibbo grapes) are also highly valued for both personal use and sale as value-added products (wine and raisins). While neither of these species appeared directly in our informant data (as both are considered by locals as a core part of agriculture on the island—and not “wild”), we did document a large number of plants used to create tools for their cultivation and harvest. This is most evident concerning species used in traditional basket weaving. Various types of baskets are created with wild plants for such purposes:
  • Panaro: basket with handle for collecting wild fruits and berries;
  • Canistru: basket without a handle for collecting capers;
  • Cuddino: a double handled basket for collecting grapes;
  • Cuffa: basket carried by a donkey; and
  • Cuffino di tartise: basket for carrying volcanic rocks (used to build protective walls around crops).
Certain species were used for specific baskets and specific parts of the baskets, as each offer different qualities of strength, weight, and flexibility. Some of the most commonly used species for this purpose included Arundo donax L., Phillyrea media L., Daphne gnidium, Pistacia lentiscus L., Myrtus communis L., and Olea europaea L. (ESM, Table 1). Fishing nets and traps were also once made primarily with local plant materials. Unfortunately, knowledge of traditional basket weaving is in decline, and only a few locals currently practice the art on the island today (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4
Wild plants are used to make agricultural and maritime tools, such as a baskets and b fish traps. c Certain toxic species (especially Euphorbia spp.) were once used as fish poisons by either being woven into the fish traps or pounded and the latex released into small canals.

Maritime Uses

Traditional maritime practices have historically played a central role for Pantescans as inhabitants of a small land mass surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea. In the past, boats were made from wild plants found on the island, as were many of the fishing tools, which included nets, traps, and fish poisons. Today, the art of weaving traditional fish traps and nets (Fig. 4b) has nearly disappeared. The use of local plants as fish poison is likewise no longer practiced, and informants reported it to be illegal to practice this tradition today. However, knowledge of these practices was reported in the more elderly informants and was based on personal experiences from their youth.
Pantelleria is abundantly populated with a number of Euphorbia spp., collectively attributed with the folk-generic name of tassu by local people. The latex of these species are widely recognized as toxic to humans, with some considered more so than others. Indeed, two species are cited only for their recognition as a nuisance (Euphorbia helioscopia L. and E. terracina L.) and this is due to skin reactions that occur after contact with them or damage to the eyes if exposed to the latex. E. dendroides and E. segetalis L., on the other hand, while being recognized as a poison (nuisance plant), are also valued for application as a fish poison. Both were reported as used by pounding the leaves and placing them in a closed canal, then scooping up the stunned fish with a basket. E. dendroides has an additional (and more frequently cited) use of weaving the branches with the milky latex into fish traps for open sea fishing. The job of collecting and weaving the branches into the traps was often delegated to boys (10–12 years old).
TEK of fish poisons represents an important knowledge reservoir for survival in times of food shortages. In isolated island environments, this is exceptionally important should there ever be an interruption of trade and exchange outside of the island. Various Euphorbia species have also been reported as fish poisons in other parts of the world, and are still used today by indigenous peoples in Guyana (van Andel 2000) and tropical Africa (Neuwinger 2004), for example.

Other Uses of Poisonous Plants

Some interesting uses were reported for Drimia maritima, locally known as scippudazzu. Similar to what was reported by Galt and Galt (1978), this species is still used as a means of protecting one’s garden harvest from would-be vegetable and fruit thieves. The bulb juice of this species is extracted and smeared onto favored crops in effort to punish potential thieves (it is reported to have strong laxative action and causes diarrhea). Other uses not reported in the previous study include planting a few bulbs (two or three) at the base of each fruit tree (especially for figs) as a means of repelling insects and rodents that would otherwise damage the fruit. Research into the phytochemistry of this species has revealed a number of cardiac glycosides (Knittel et al. 2015). It has a long history of use for various purposes, including medicine, and the earliest written reports date back to the Ebers Papyrus (1500 B.C.E.). More recently, following its introduction to North America after World War II, it was examined for potential as a rodenticide in California (Gentry et al. 1987).

Multifunctional Plants

“Balluto”: Quercus ilex

Of all of the wild species cited in the study, Q. ilex received the highest use-value index score (2.548). This was somewhat surprising as it is not used as a human food or medicine. Instead, it is highly appreciated due to a variety of other important applications; the most highly cited of which are the following:
  • Livestock fodder: the fruits are fed to livestock (especially pigs);
  • Toy: the fruits are used as a spinning top, a toy that many adult informants commented on with fondness;
  • Home construction tool: the durable wood is used to make a mazzulo—a special tool used to create the characteristic roofing of the traditional island homes (singular: dammuso; plural: dammusi), which were designed to collect rainwater into a cistern (Constantino 2010). This form of construction is incredibly important to the survival of local people (especially in the past) as there are no local sources of freshwater for drinking on the island. Today, freshwater is brought in by ship and distributed to cisterns across the island; and
  • Agricultural tool: the durable wood is used to make handles for agricultural tools such as hoes and shovels.
Other lesser reported uses included applications as firewood, charcoal, boat construction, and coffee substitute (during wartime) and as an environmental indicator on where to find edible mushrooms.

“Ficudinnia”: Opuntia ficus-indica

Second only to Q. ilex, the prickly pear cactus was highly ranked as a multifunctional plant (UVc  = 2.429). This plant is abundantly distributed across the island and its reported uses were distributed across four major categories: food, ethnoveterinary, household, and human medicine; this also included five subcategories for human medicine: dermatological, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, respiratory, and urological. While the full description of preparations and uses for this species is reported in ESM, Appendix 1, there are a few interesting uses to highlight here that are specific to survival in the harsh environmental conditions of the island. As reported by Galt and Galt (1978), the paddles continue to be used as a means of providing shade and protection against the wind for young plants, especially tomatoes and eggplants. To achieve this, a partial depth slice is made from side to side of the paddle, such that it can be folded and propped up on its side with the young plant in the center. Other widely reported uses of this species, which were also reported by Galt and Galt (1978), included use of the fruits as a source of food and the flowers as a tisane for its diuretic properties. Interestingly, there are very specific methods used to access the most favored fruits: the results of the first fruiting are knocked off the plant and fed to pigs as previously reported in Sicily (Barbera et al. 1992). The timing of this activity is staggered over a period of weeks in the early summer so that the sweet fruits desired for human consumption mature over a period of weeks in September. In this way, TEK is being used to ensure a longer period of access (and thus greater food security) to this managed wild food, which is consumed raw.
Lastly, while not previously reported, an additional use of the prickly pear that contributed to food security was reported by 15 elderly informants as a memory from their childhood. In the past, young boys used the paddle of O. ficus-indica along with the stems of Arundo donax to create a trap for a small bird (pettirosso). This trap was built by cutting a square hole into the center of the paddle and making a window with bars inside the hole using strips of split A. donax cane. A small hole in the ground would then be dug, and the paddle trap propped over the hole with a stick or piece of cane holding it in place. At the bottom of the stick, a worm would be placed such that when the bird approaches to eat the worm, it will be trapped in the hole, with the paddle falling down, but able to survive (due to the caged window) until the boy returns to check his trap. Today, informants said that the bird is protected and thus trapping is now illegal, but fond memory of the practice still survives in the elder generation.


In this paper, we documented the current state of TEK concerning the use of wild plants and fungi on Pantelleria Island. We examined a report on the ethnobotanical practices of 45 years ago to specifically look for potential shifts in TEK. While we recorded a loss in a number of plant uses previously documented in the 1969 study—specifically related to livestock rearing practices war time and ritual healing—we also documented some practices that were not likely to have been in practice 45 years ago. This is most clear when considering the use of edible wild fungi, which was widely reported as a new trend experienced during later adulthood of many of our informants. This set of TEK was introduced to the island via a number of avenues, including tourists and chefs from mainland Italy, as well as by local educational workshops, books, and national TV programs concerning food. On the other hand, there were a number of plant uses that were reported as a past practice (recalled from childhood experiences) and these dealt primarily with foraging, fishing, and hunting activities. Some such practices have disappeared due to legal bans (e.g., use of fish poisons and hunting of certain bird species is now reported by informants to be prohibited). These practices, however, were recalled with great fondness and represent an important part of the cultural identity of the local population.
Numerous specialized skills tailored to surviving in a physically isolated location are characteristic to the body of TEK here. Self-reliance on the generation or wild procurement of food and medicine for local people and their livestock under conditions of limited fresh water, harsh sun, and wind forms the basis of the adaptive cultural identity of the Pantescans. Looking forward, a decline in TEK practice could eventually lead to the loss of much of this body of knowledge as the generations that hold this oral history pass on. Using the comprehensive description of remaining TEK documented in the present study, future work could further address the driving forces behind TEK shifts (both in terms of loss and gain) and also examine the role of TEK in promoting community resilience in the face of changing climatic and environmental factors.


Funding support for this study was provided by the Emory University Center for the Study of Human Health. We would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to the Municipality of Pantelleria and all Pantescan communities and people who agreed to participate in this study. We also thank Marco Caputo for assistance with field collection of voucher specimens.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Prior informed consent was always verbally obtained prior to conducting interviews, and the ethical standards of the Society for Economic Botany and International Society of Ethnobiology were followed.

Supplementary material

12231_2016_9363_MOESM1_ESM.docx (182 kb)
ESM 1(DOCX 182 kb)