Sunny, warm days in January are priceless really. Having met my deadlines for this week, and having put in three days' work at home it was time for some fresh air, some seemingly aimless wandering; but really this is a great way to recharge the batteries before continuing on some more work, currently a drawing commission and some writing. Needless to say my camera is my ever-present companion on these long walks - in this case a three hour walk exploring lanes and garigue around Bidnija. Hope you enjoy the pics as much as I enjoyed the walking...
A quiet lane in Bidnija - it's surprising that after more than fifty years of living here I can still find the odd previously undiscovered lane here and there.
The first brown orchids are out. I simply love the intricate structure of orchids.
Another previously undiscovered track leads me to some great views over Wied Qannotta.
View from atop il-Qolla towards Gebel Ghawzara.
The ideal dream home complete with private chapel in Wied Qannotta.
A seemingly endless field of artichokes...
A farmer and his dog on their way to the fields.
From mid-March to May is probably the best time to be in Malta. The days start getting longer and the weather is warmer - and mercifully the torrid summer heat is still some way off yet. Life starts to move more and more to the outdoors and there are markedly more activities around, not least the first flurry of local festas as well as a number of other themed village festivals.
Nature also marks its last hurrah at about this time, before the fierce summer sun dries out all but the most resilient of plant life. The Islands boast approximately a thousand wild flowering plants and around seven hundred of them are indigenous – i.e. they occur naturally here rather than being alien introductions.
The climax of Mediterranean ecosystems, woodland, is sadly almost absent in Malta; with the archipelago’s first settlers having probably deforested the islands by the end of prehistoric times. The Knights did somewhat rectify matters by planting Buskett, which after 500 years or so of existence has become a self-generating woodland, characterized by Aleppo pines, olive and orange trees.
Garigue and maquis are by far the most interesting and richest of our habitats and there are plenty of examples in the islands.
Maquis is normally associated with the sides of steep valleys where the relative shade and humidity allow for the growth of smaller trees and bushes. Carobs, olives, lentisk and bay laurel abound here; accompanied by various climbers like ivy and wild asparagus and the beautiful bear’s breeches with its towering white and purple flower stalk.
But it is the garigue which probably brings out the best in Maltese flora. Garigues are rocky expanses bearing numerous depressions which allow soil to collect and water to percolate. The garigue habitat is mostly prevalent in the west of Malta with good examples around Mellieha, Rabat, Dingli, Mgarr and other towns. Gozo has some garigue expanses as well, the largest being the one at Ta Cenc.
The most attractive of garigue residents are probably the orchids, of which Malta has around a dozen species. Two of them, the Maltese Pyramidal and the Maltese Spider orchids, are also endemic – found here and nowhere else worldwide. Equally beautiful is the Southern Dwarf Iris which has a very limited distribution in Europe – found only in Sicily and parts of the former Yugoslavia. Another show stopper is the Sicilian Squill – a plant with an exquisite flower head of white and celestial blue and only found here and in small numbers in Sicily and Calabria – in both of these last places it is considered close to extinction.
The garigues are also home to several low aromatic bushes. Among the most common is the wild thyme which only comes to flower in late May and turns some places into a pale violet carpet. At any time of the year one cannot escape the plant’s sweet, sharp scent. Another aromatic herb is the rosemary whose leaves are frequently used to garnish pork and other dishes.
Yet another heavenly scent comes from the Bushy Restharrow with its small yellow flowers and sticky aromatic leaves. Interestingly this low bush is also of some historical significance since it was the first species to be afforded a measure of official protection. In the eighteenth century Grand Master De Rohan issued an edict forbidding its collection for firewood prior to a fortnight after the feast of St.John ( June 24 ) in order to allow seed formation and dispersal. Progressive thinking for a place where brushwood for fuel was a luxury.
Where garigues border the seaboard cliffs, look out also for Malta’s national plant – the Maltese Rock Centaury – another endemic and a remnant of pre Ice Age flora. Its Maltese name – Widnet il-Bahar (literally “the ear of the sea”) is poetically precise…the plant thrives best in precarious crags on vertical cliff faces as if perpetually listening to the sounds of the sea far below.
These are but a few of the many species which inhabit the garigues. Other plant species are found in other habitat types and man- made environments such as cultivated or fallow fields. Perhaps the most recognizable of the field flowers are the poppies which in Malta come in red and purple varieties.
Ironically (and disappointingly) the most common flowering plant in Malta, the Cape Sorrel, is a South African native; reputedly introduced to the Islands in the early years of British rule by a well meaning but ultimately foolhardy English lady. The plant adapted so well here that it has reached practically all corners of the islands with populations running riot on wide stretches of fields and fallow ground. A pretty sight admittedly – but a plant which has done untold damage to indigenous species and no doubt led to some local extinctions. The Maltese collective memory appears not to have forgotten this alien intrusion – to this day the cape sorrel is colloquially known as “haxixa Ingliza” – the English weed.
To end on a positive note: Malta is lucky to count among its citizens a foremost botanist who has done sterling work in the field of local flora. Edwin Lanfranco not only identified the Maltese Cliff Orache as a separate species but has had the unique distinction of having the species named in his honour - its scientific moniker being Cremnophyton lanfrancoi.
The article above was first published in the April 2013 edition of Il-Bizzilla - Air Malta's inflight magazine
Not too many people are aware that a variety of wild tulip (tulipa australis) exists in Malta. Understandably its exact location is a closely guarded secret, known mostly to nature enthusiasts. I have known about this species for quite a long time and I knew the valley it was located in, but it had taken me quite a few forays to finally locate it. I think it was 2005 - eight years ago.
In subsequent years I sometimes wandered to the area again at the appropriate time of year and was sad to see the place was now being tilled and there were no signs of this rare plant. I assumed it was all but extinct - or at best another population had established itself somewhere nearby.
So it was a pleasant surprise to revisit the area today and find the tulip still in place with about a dozen or so plants in flower. A wonder really that this plant survives at all in an area not larger than your average sized room - and apparently nowhere else.
Tulipa australis photographed in 2005...
...and in 2013.
In 2003 I got my first digital camera and with it came the luxury of taking as many photos as I wished without bothering about the expense of developing. No printing required and in general a better view of the pictures one takes on a pc monitor than on paper. Great – just great!
One of the features of my camera was macro which I suppose even then was standard. I was curious to use this and started experimenting on flowers. Easy subject – small, pretty and normally very obedient posers unless the wind is huffing and puffing big time. Trouble is it became something of a hobby which soon snowballed into another of my wayward passions.
First it was just about trying to get a decent picture. Then the curiosity started and I wanted to know what I was photographing – yes I needed to know each plant’s name in both English and Maltese and to boot the Latin scientific name as well.
So then came the nature books (just one or two initially) for identification. With the books came the realization that Malta has over a thousand flowering plants – a good 700 of which are indigenous (i.e. they occur here naturally and are not imported or introduced species). I was amazed that such a small island could host so many species and naturally I wanted to photograph them all! The books I bought invariably indicated flowering time – so every week or so I could go out and photograph the species which would flower according to nature’s precise and marvelous time clock. An absolutely fascinating journey of discovery.
Then I started looking for the rare stuff; some of the rare orchids, the Maltese Toadflax (Linaria pseudolaxiflora – a plant occurring only here and in the Pelagie Islands – hey I still can roll out some of those botanic names!) and so many others. I already knew the indefatigable Annalise Falzon and Alan Deidun from Nature Trust and Annalise put me in contact with Edwin Lanfranco – the foremost Maltese botanist – with whom I frequently exchanged mail relating to plant identification. I must have bothered this highly knowledgeable but humble man no end. Edwin Lanfranco has done tireless research in the field and to his credit he identified the Maltese Cliff Orache as a distinct species which today bears the scientific name of Cremnophyton lanfrancoi. A man ironically immortalized in the botanic world but sadly never officially honored by his mother nation.
I also got in touch with Stephen Mifsud who maintains a very good website on Maltese flora and I also met some lovely people when Stephen occasionally organized photo shoot outings or a “hunt” for a particular rare species.
I learned so much on this journey – not least the beauty of words and language. For example the common bear’s breeches sports the very melodic Maltese name of hannewija – I do not know what this word means but it must be one of the most beautiful in the Maltese language. Then there is a small plant which grows on rocky ground bearing the strange name of xkattapietra – which is a (very) rough derivative of its Italian name Spacca Pietra. The name itself indicates its use – it was (and I believe still is) traditionally used to break down gall stones… I still remember my mother using it some years ago. Our national plant the Maltese Rock Centaury is called Widnet il-Bahar in Maltese – a literal translation would be “the ear of the sea”. The plant itself does not bear any resemblance to that particular orifice, but its growing habit – perched on cliff edges on top of the water and growing practically out of the mostly soilless rock makes its Maltese name so appropriate – it is perennially “listening” to the sea below. Incidentally this plant is a relict species from the pre-ice age flora and has no surviving close relatives. Fascinating! The Maltese Rock Centaury is also endemic – which means that it grows only in Malta and does not occur naturally anywhere else in the world.
Then there was the funny stuff. Once a friend alerted me about a huge field of Goat’s Beard (Geropogon hybridus) growing at Dwejra. He gave me some you-can’t-miss-it directions. I went on my next free afternoon armed with camera but poof! nothing. I was so angry that my friend had sent me on a wild goose chase but then he coolly remembered that, much like the civil service in summer, these plants close shop (their flowers that is) by midday. Another time on the Hal Far cliffs I found a large swathe of the rare ice plant (Mesembryanthemum crystallinum) that I had long been waiting to photograph. I knew this plant was not an early riser and its flowers would only open properly round midday - and it was still 9am or so. Nothing to it - I simply waited patiently for two hours or so in the hot June sun for the flowers to open and got an unwelcome builders’ tan for the effort.
After four years or so of flower hunting I started finding it incredibly difficult to discover new unphotographed species so the feeding frenzy started to wane. I must have photographed more than five hundred species during that time. I still carry a camera every time I go for walks however and snap happily if I find anything which looks unfamiliar.
I now know more or less the distribution and habitats of most local species but I am still mystified how some plants turn up in the strangest of places – for example the very rare Euphorbia characias only occurs on one particular garigue in Malta and very sporadically in Gozo and yet some months back I spotted a lone species growing next to a dilapidated part of the Wignacourt Aqueduct in Attard. How the hell did it get there and settle happily on highly disturbed waste ground when it is such a fussy rocky plant?
My enduring fascination with nature, photography and landscape eventually led me to be involved in the Ramblers Association of Malta – but that would be the subject of another post I suppose.
If you enjoyed reading this you might find the following links of interest.
http://www.maltawildplants.com/ - Stephen Mifsud’s website with a huge bank of Maltese flora photographs.
http://schoolnet.gov.mt/tanti/Birds.html - brilliant bird photography by Aron Tanti. Also contains other nature photography – plants, animals etc.