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.