Volcanic eruptions: On a visit to Mount Etna, Anna Pavord finds pistachio trees and orange groves flourishing amid barely cold flows of lava

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The Independent Online

Our sailing holiday this year took us to the Aeolian islands, off the north coast of Sicily. What could the ancient Greeks, who settled the islands around 580BC, have made of Stromboli, heaving fire and lava from its peak? We went out in a local boat one rich, still night and watched the bulk of the mountain as it rumbled and rolled with a noise like a tube train in a distant tunnel. The sea that night was still, oily and black, the sky equally dark but thick with stars, the huge smudgy path of the Milky Way making an arch over our heads. It seemed as if the volcano was holding its breath, then bursting with the effort, lighting the sky with its exhaling gasps. "Arriva!" shouted the boatman each time it blew. Then the orange hot colours faded and we watched small balls of fire roll down the mountain's flanks, flaring and dying as they fell.

Ten times that happened in the two hours that we were out at sea and each time it was different. The force varied, the colours changed, the daggers of savagery piercing the sky were sometimes sharp, sometimes amorphous. It was always mesmerising. Hypnotic. You didn't want to take your eyes off Stromboli and it seemed impertinent to do so. By day, all you saw was the smoke, and the greyish cloud that the volcano spun round its head, the shape constantly changing.

I felt the same sense of awe as we stormed through the straits of Messina on a spring tide with the wind behind us and the sails spread out either side of the boat. The straits, the narrow strip of water between the toe of Italy's boot and the football of Sicily, link the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west with the Ionian Sea to the east. One sea is denser than the other and that is what causes the strait's weird waves and whirlpools.

As we entered the narrow gap where the two meet, the waters stood up like the Severn bore, topped with a punky, spiky hairdo. It was the weirdest thing I've ever seen a sea do. Odysseus would have seen it too, because he came this way, past Scilla on one side with her six terrible heads ready to gobble up sailors, and Charybdis, the whirlpool, on the other. There really was a violent whirlpool here until 1783, when an earthquake flattened out the seabed and took away some of its power. But even in 1824, Admiral Smyth wrote that he had seen "several men of war, even a 74 gun ship whirled around on Scilla's surface". Our Bavaria 43 was a sturdy boat, but as she moved through the water you could feel her shuddering at the competing claims on her body. As daylight faded, it was good to get safely into Riposto, on the Sicilian mainland.

There's a small train here, the Ferrovia Circumetnea, that takes you on a journey round the foot of smouldering Mount Etna. Smouldering landscape too. From the sea, the defining feature of the Sicilian scene was the number of fires burning. Big trees were rare, but it was fascinating to see how quickly the sides of the volcano clothed themselves with grass and bracken. And here from the train, I saw great sheets of Mount Etna broom, which I knew only from Great Dixter, where it was one of Christopher Lloyd's favourite things, lighting up the garden in July with great waterfalls of yellow blossom.

At Dixter, I'd never thought of the broom actually at home on its mountain. It wasn't in flower when we saw it in Sicily of course, and it was a lower, scrubbier thing than it becomes with us, when it develops almost into a tree, 20ft high or more. It looks almost evergreen because the bright green stems have taken over what the leaves usually do. The foliage itself is practically invisible. It's a plant that often grows better from seed than cuttings and out here on the slopes of Etna it had all the sun it needed and plenty of space for seedlings to develop.

The railway makes a great loop inland from Riposto, through Linguaglossa, Randazzo, Adrano and Paterno, finishing at Catania Borgo, where a most surprising new underground railway, completely devoid of staff, takes you into the main railway station and a mainline train back to Riposto. It's a harsh landscape. As in eastern Turkey, the heaps of stone cleared from the land seem bigger than the bits of ground they sit beside. And Etna's lava flows are still black and unclothed from the last eruption in the summer of 2001.

But there were orange groves - Sicily grows famously good blood oranges - olive groves, though nowhere near as abundant as those of Tuscany, and in one area masses of pistachio trees. From this one small area on the flanks of Etna comes 85 per cent of all the pistachio nuts grown in Europe. The trees made great spreading shapes, the leaves large and rounded. I'd never seen them growing before and the harvest was just beginning: hand-picked, which must be why they are so expensive to buy.

I've never seen a pistachio (Pistacia vera) growing in Britain, though an American book I have (Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy) rates its hardiness as Zones 7-9. She rates the loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) as Zones 8-10, in other words, more tender than the pistachio. Since I've seen loquats fruiting in London front gardens, I suppose it's possible that somewhere in our country, there's a frost-free pocket where a pistachio could grow outside. I reckon it could grow anywhere an olive can grow. Ms Creasy says they need 100 days of heat and 30 days of cold, so they do well in the Sacramento Valley of California. Here, they'd be pushed to get enough heat. And while the loquat (and the olive) is a handsome thing with fine, evergreen foliage, the pistachio isn't a thing you'd grow just for its looks. The spreading, gangly shape is awkward to accommodate, the flowers are insignificant and you need both male and female trees to get nuts.

The train, moving slowly as it climbed through the hinterland, gave a good lesson in the particularity of plants: oranges just here, pistachios just there, sternbergias thickly spread over one area of small, stony pastures, but seen nowhere else. The same with the tall stems of the sea squill, Urginea maritima, covered in creamy star-shaped flowers. They grew as thickly as thistles in one particular area and then were never seen again.

Riposto was a great place, completely unconcerned about attracting visitors, the tight grid of streets narrow with stalls of vegetables and fish. There, at a trattoria, we had such a good meal with such good wine, I've forgotten its name. The owner led us into a strange high room, with traces of vaulting in the ceiling. No menu ever appeared. He, with a back wider than his own front door, sat down with us at a table and in rapid Italian told us what we were going to have: a selection of antipasti which included some melting little fishcakes made of sardine, followed by two sorts of homemade pasta - plenty for five, he said. Finally a selection of fish from the day's catch. Superb. You'll find it. Riposto's that kind of place.