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.
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