Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Insect diversity

Last Sunday I photographed a soft-winged flower beetle at Wied Qirda. This is a small shiny green beetle known in Maltese as ħadranija tal-ward

It is a common species often seen on yellow flowers such as the Cape sorrel (ħaxixa Ngliża) and the crown daisy (lellux). The beetle I photographed on Sunday was spotted by my three year old son.

 I did not see it myself because it was walking on the stem of a grass about 10 cm from the ground and out of my line of vision. Children have a different perspective of their surroundings and often manage to see things which grownups miss. 

I often encountered adults who say that they remember seeing more flowers and insects when they were young. They remember more than anything the gourd ladybird (nannakola tal-faqqus il-ħmir) an insect that lives on the squirting cucumber (faqqus il-ħmir). Both the squirting cucumber and the ladybird are still common in the Maltese countryside. These people fail to see them because they do not know where and how to look.

This does not mean that insect numbers have not gone down. The amount of countryside has shrunk drastically during the last 50 years and it continues to be gobbled up at an alarming rate in spite of the fact that we are more aware about the need to conserve it. 

Changes in agriculture, especially the use of pesticides have had their toll as well. Pesticides kill insects and many kill indiscriminately. They kill pests as well as other species some of which are beneficial such as bees especially if they are used indiscriminately. 

For several decades farmers have been urged to spray their crops. As the pests became immune to the pesticides stronger pesticides in larger doses had to be used. Now they are being told to stop using them and many are confused. Some have been spraying their crops throughout their whole life and do not know otherwise. 

Although many are now realising that something is wrong they find it hard to accept that what they have been told for the past thirty or forty years was not exactly right and find it hard to change. A small number are now starting to practice more environment friendly agriculture and more should do so for the benefit of everybody including nature.

This article was published in The Times on 03.03.2010 

The weird and parasitic broomrapes

Broomrapes are very strange looking plants. They are not green and do not have leaves. They are parasites and live by taking nutrients from other plants. 

A typical broomrape looks like a brown or yellow fleshy stalk growing out of the soil close to another plant. When fully grown they also have several small unimpressive snapdragon-like flowers growing close to the top of this solitary stalk. 

The plants are seen at the end of winter or during spring. They appear above ground only when it is time to flower. 

During the rest of their lives they live underground closely associated with the roots of a host plan on which they are totally dependent. They have very small seeds that become black with time. The seeds can remain alive in the soil for many years until they are stimulated to germinate by the presence by certain compounds produced by the living roots of a host plant. 

The seedlings put out root-like growth which attaches to the roots of the nearby host. Once attached to a host, the broomrape robs its host of water and nutrient.

There are about 200 species of broomrape of which about 13 are found in the Maltese islands. These include an endemic species and an endemic race. Some species are able to parasite a single plant species. These species are often named after the plant they parasitise. 

One such plant is the endemic Maltese race of the dwarf broomrape. Originally this species parasitised several species of leguminous plant but in Malta it has become a parasite of the Cape sorrel (ħaxixa Ngliża) and in fact in Maltese it known as budebbus ta’ l-Ingliża.

The species shown with today’s article, the common broomrape, is on the other hand a parasite of a large variety of plants of the leguminous and composite families. It can be seen in flower in March and April but is not as common as its name suggests. 

This article appeared in The Times on 10.03.2010

The destructive red palm weevil

The red palm weevil has been in the news since it appeared in Malta about three and a half years ago. It is a large rusty-red beetle that lives on palm trees and can kill the host plant. It is a strong flier. 

Last week one flew through my bedroom window in a locality where there are no palm trees within a radius of several hundred metres.

The red palm weevil, which has been given the Maltese name bumunqar aħmar tal-palm, came from tropical Asia from where it spread to Africa and Europe. It reached the Mediterranean in the 1980s and was first recorded in Spain in 1994. In 2006 it was found in France and in 2007 it was recorded from Malta.
The adult weevil damages palm trees through feeding but it is the larva that kills it by burrowing into the trunk.

The cause of the high rate of spread of this pest is human intervention, by transporting infested young or adult date palm trees and offshoots from contaminated to uninfected areas.

Information on Red Palm Weevil was first published in 1891 in India. This pest was first described as a serious pest of the coconut palm in 1906, while in 1917 it was described as a serious pest in the date palm in the Punjab, India.

It is considered as the most serious pest of palm trees in the world. Control is mainly through the use of pesticides although other measures such as attracting the adult insect into traps by means of pheromones are sometimes used. Pheromones are chemicals released by females to attract males.

It has been found that the most effective way to apply pesticides directly into the trees by injecting it directly into the trunk. As happens whenever pesticides are used there can be serious negative consequences to the environment. 

These chemicals leach into the soil and water killing other organisms. In other countries experiments are being carried out to assess the effectiveness of biological methods of control.

One such method is by the use of nematodes that attack the insect killing it within three days but what is effective in the laboratory does not necessarily work in nature.

This is not the only pest that arrived in Malta in the past few years. Another pest which has had serious negative consequences is the tomato leaf miner which last summer destroyed a large percentage of the tomato crop.

This article appeared in The Times 17.03.2010

The spurges aka Euphorbia

The spurges are a large group of plants which are also known as Euphorbia. 

This group consists of about 2,000 diverse species living mainly in the tropical and subtropical regions of Africa and the Americas where many succulent species can be found. 

They are also found on island groups such as the Hawaiian Islands where they are known as “akoko” and the Canary Islands where they are called “tabaibas”.

The name spurge is derived from Middle English and Old French ‘espurge’ which meant to purge as the plant’s sap was used as a purgative. Its botanical name Euphorbia is said to have been coined in honour of Euphorbius, a Greek physician who used a species of spurge to cure King Juba II of Numidia from a swollen belly.

Spurges produce latex. This is a milk-like liquid that deters herbivours and heals wounds. It flows out of the plant and dries within minutes of coming in contact with air. 

Some species produce very poisonous latex which can irritate the skin especially if it comes in contact with the eyes and air passages.

In Maltese the spurges are known as tengħud.

Nearly 20 species of spurge have been recorded in the Maltese islands. The pine spurge (tengħud komuni) is common in disturbed ground. The tree spurge, known in Maltese as tengħud tas-siġra, can grow up to 2 metres high. 

It has bright yellow flowers which bloom in winter and spring while the Maltese spurge, known locally as tengħud tax-xagħri, grows up to 1 metre high and flowers mainly in March.

Several species have been imported as garden or decorative plants. The best known of these are the castor oil plant which grows profusely in moist areas especially valleys to the detriment of native species and the Poinsett which is better known as the Christmas flower.

Several species of butterflies and moths live on spurges. Some species are able to use the poison found in the plants to defend themselves from predators by becoming poisonous themselves. The Maltese spurge hawk moth, which is endemic to the Maltese islands, is one such species. 

This article appeared in The Times on 24.03.2010

The Cory's shearwater

The Cory's Shearwater is a large seabird that breeds mainly on islands and cliffs in the Mediterranean. 

In the Maltese Islands it breeds along most of the cliffs of Malta, Gozo and Comino as well as on the islet of Filfla. The nest which is not more than a shallow depression in the ground is usually found in deep crevices or underneath boulders safe from predators especially gulls.

In Maltese the Cory’s shearwater is known as ċiefa. About 7,000 breeding pairs are found in the Maltese islands. The largest colony is found at Ta’ Ċenċ on Gozo where it is estimated there are about 1,000 pairs breed but if you visit this site of any of the other colonies during the day you will not see any shearwaters flying around. 

Shearwaters which are not incubating spend the day feeding far out at sea. They return to take over brooding duties or to feed the young at night when the colonies become alive with loud calls like that of crying babies.

Cory’s shearwaters are at their colonies from late February to October.

 They lay a single egg at the end of May. The hatchling is fed on regurgitated food and the young bird grows and becomes fat very quickly. In August and September, while still covered in downy feathers, it weighs twice as much as its parents. In September it starts to grow true feathers. 

By this time it is visited by its parents less and less often and is abandoned completely for several weeks at the end of the breeding season. 

During this time it relies on the fat that was accumulated in its body while it was growing. 

In October the young birds have grown their full compliment of adult feathers and as their fat reserves are used up they start getting restless often visiting the opening of the crevice in which they were hatched until one night they open their wings and jump off to take their first flight. 

The colonies are deserted by the third week of October.

One hundred and fifty years ago Cory’s shearwater were shot to be roasted and mashed into a paste which was used as fishing bait. They were also available for sale at the Valletta market. Some hunters used to go out in boats to shoot them for fun. This practice increased in the 1980s when hunting from boats started to become popular even though by this time it had become illegal to shoot at these birds. Today the biggest threat is from human disturbance. 

These birds are very sensitive to light and abandon their colonies if there is too much light in the vicinity. To protect these birds it is important to ensure that no development that could be detrimental to this species is allowed along the cliff faces where they breed. Colonies are also destroyed by quarrying and no development along the cliffs where they breed.

This article appeared in The Times 21.07.2010

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The garden nasturtium

The nasturtium is another alien species that is finding roots in the Maltese countryside.

 It is often found in shallow valleys especially close to gardens or growing in sheltered parts of a field especially close to rubble walls.

The nasturtium genus which belongs to the mustard family is a native of Central and South America. Many species are grown as garden plants and are considered as a invasive species in many parts of the world including Malta.

The species found in the Maltese countryside, known in Maltese as kapuċinella, is probably a hybrid of plants originating in the Andes from Bolivia north to Columbia. 

This species is known both as an ornamental plant as well as for its medicinal and culinary value. Both the leaves and flowers are edible and are used as salads. It is said that even the seeds are edible and can be used as a substitute for capers.

The nasturtium is a food plant for many species of butterflies and moths. In Malta I have found the caterpillar of the large white butterfly feeding in large numbers on its leaves.

Nasturtiums are sometimes planted as companion plants. They repel several species of pests and attract others. They are sometimes planted in the hope that these pests attack them thus keeping away from the crops.

The nasturtium has a slightly peppery taste similar to that of the watercress after which they are named. Watercress, which is known scientifically as Nasturtium, belongs to the mustard family and the two species should not be confused. 

The watercress which is known in Maltese as krexxuni, grows in aquatic and semi-aquatic habitats from Europe to central Asia. The stems are hollow and float on water.

It is widely cultivated to be sold as sprouts especially in the UK. Being an aquatic plant water cress grows easily in hydroponic systems and should do well in Malta. It is claimed that this plant is rich in minerals, folic acid and vitamins A and C. It is also a stimulant, diuretic, an expectorant and a digestive aid and is rich in antioxidants.

This article appeared in The Times 31.03.2010

Sedum is genus of flowering plants

Mediterranean stonecrop (Sedum sediforme)
Sedum is a genus of flowering plants many of which are known as stonecrops. 

The genus consists of about 400 species found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. They can be annual, herbs or shrubs. They are characterised by having thick leaves that are able to store water and are thus able to live in dry areas and in areas with little soil.

Many species of sedum are cultivated as garden plants. In some countries they are the main species used to create green roofs. These are roofs which are covered with a layer of soil in which plants are grown.

 This system which is gaining popularity in the USA as well as in some European countries helps to control the temperature of the building by adding a thick insulating layer. These buildings thus require less air-conditioning. Sedums have the advantage of being able to thrive in dry conditions.

Several species of stonecrop are found in the Maltese islands. One of the most common is the Mediterranean stonecrop, known in Maltese as sedum. This species is frequently found growing in coastal garigue and on top of marine cliffs. It lives for several years retaining its grayish-green or bronze-red leaves throughout the year. 

The flowers, which appear in early summer, grow at the top of a relatively tall stalk.
Another common species is the blue stonecrop, an annual plant which dies in early summer after having produced seeds. This species grows in hollow depression in rocky areas that fill up with water in winter and dry up completely by spring or early summer. Sometimes it grows in such profusion that it forms a reddish carpet on the rocky surface. Small light purple flowers appear between March and May. In Maltese it is known as beżżul il-baqra.

Another member of the stonecrop family, the navelwort, grows in cracks on cliff faces and in dry stonewalls. It has round leaves in the form of a navel, hence its English name, and the more graphic Maltese name żokret l-għaġuża, which means the old woman’s navel. 

This article appeared in The Times 14.07.2010

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The disappearing turtle dove

The European population of the turtle dove is declining. 

A census carried out in 2007 has shown that its numbers have fallen by 62% because of changes in agriculture and the shooting of migratory birds in southern Europe. 

The decline is so big that experts believe that this species is going towards what is termed as continental extinction. What stops it from being listed as an endangered species is the large Asian population which is still healthy.

The turtle dove is a migratory species that spends the winter in southern Africa. The number of turtle doves migrating over the Maltese islands has also gone down, probably by more than 62 % which is the European average. 

When I started bird watching, thirty years ago, we used to see more turtle doves than we see nowadays. At that time hunters used to describe the large flocks of turtle doves which migrated over Malta every year. 

Probably none of these hunters expected that the turtle dove would decrease so much that it would one day become an endangered species. Hopefully the turtle dove will not go the same way as the North American passer pigeon which with an estimated population of between 3 and 5 billion birds was considered to be one of the most abundant birds in the world. 

This species migrated in large flocks that could stretch 1.6 km wide and 500 km long across the sky, sometimes taking several hours to pass. In the early 19th century gunners started to shoot at these birds for food and sport and by the end of the century what conservationists had been saying for a long time did happen – the passer pigeon became extinct in the wild.

The disappearance of this species gave a major impetus to the conservation movement in the United States which resulted in new legislation being passed to conserve nature. Unfortunately this came too late to save the passer pigeon.

The Maltese government will be allowing the shooting of turtle doves for six days while they are migrating to their breeding sites at the end of this month. This decision goes against all conservation practices as every bird shot at this time of the year means one nest less. Furthermore in Malta during the hunting season all birds, whether protected or not, are shot.

 Protected birds were indiscriminately shot during the autumn and are still being shot now even though the hunting season is not yet open. The police so far have not been able to control the situation and we would be deluding ourselves to believe that things have changed.

To add insult to injury on Monday the Prime Minister announced that next year hunters will be allowed to hunt for three whole weeks. No spring hunting was allowed for the past two years and the results were there for everyone to see. It was not just birdwatchers who noticed more birds in the Maltese countryside but also casual visitors to the countryside and even people who do not visit the countryside at all. I met many people who excitedly described flocks of birds which they had never seen before.

 If the Prime Minister goes on with his intention of opening the hunting season Malta will again be shamed throughout Europe, because a small group of people arrogantly hold the rest of the country hostage and those who should be saying no to them give in as soon as they start protesting. Thanks to this attitude the turtle dove which in many parts of the world has become the emblem of devoted love and the other migratory birds which we have been seeing in the past two years will again disappear.

This article appeared in The Times on 14.04.10

The willows - restricted to a few localities

Mediterranean Willow (Salix pedicellata

Willows prefer moist habitats in cold or temperate climates. Of about 400 species of in the world two the Mediterranean willow (safsafa żgħira) and the while willow (safsafa kbira) can be found in Malta. 

With few aquatic habitats, the two willows are understandably restricted to a few localities such as Fiddien in the limits of Rabat. The willows are not popular with farmers who see them as competitors for water. 

A single white willow, which was planted thirty years ago at Baħrija Vallery was chopped and burnt several times and although it kept grew out of its ashes several times it finally died.

The flowers, known as catkins. can be either male or female. A tree can be either male or female. The Mediterranean willow flowers in January and February while the white willow is in flower in March and April.

The leaves and bark of willow trees contain salicylic acid, the precursor to aspirin. Salicylic acid is known for its ability to ease aches and pains and reduce fevers. These medicinal properties, particularly fever relief, have been known since ancient times, and it was used as an anti-inflammatory drug. 

The leaves and bark of the willow tree have been mentioned in ancient texts from Assyria, Sumer and Egypt as a remedy for aches and fever and the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about its medicinal properties in the 5th Century BC.

In 1763 Reverend Edward Stone notified the Royal Society about the medicinal properties of the willow tree and published his findings in the Society’s journal. The active extract of the bark, called salicin, was isolated to its crystalline form in 1828 by Henri Leroux, a French pharmacist, and Raffaele Piria, an Italian chemist, who then succeeded in separating out the acid in its pure state.

Nowadays willow is being grown for biomass or biofuel in energy forest systems. In Sweden large scale project are already being developed to grow willows on a commercial scale. 

This article was published in The Times on 21.04.10

The large-flowered mallow

Large-flowered mallow (Lavatera trimestris)
The mallow family is a family of flowering plants with nearly 2,300 species. Well known members of this family include the hibiscus, okra and cacao. 

Several species are found in Malta. Most have large beautiful flowers, the largest being those of the large-flowered mallow (ħobbejża tal-warda kbira) which is an annual species often found growing near fields and country paths. The flowers which can be about 10 cm in diameter can be seen from mid-spring to early summer.

The large-flowered mallow belongs to a genus of about 25 plants with five pink, white or red petals, known as Lavatera. This genus is native to the Mediterranean region, central and eastern Asia and Australia.

The scientific name of the large-flowered mallow is Lavatera trimestris.

 Lavatera is named after the brothers Johann Heinrich Lavater (1611-1691) and Johann Jacob Lavater (1594-1636), Swiss physicians and naturalists while trimestris is Latin for three months.

It is found in the Mediterranean region, from Morocco, Portugal, Spain and Southern France to Turkey and the Middle East, including the Balearic Islands, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, and Greece. It is naturalised in other locations in Europe such as Germany and England and on other continents, including the United States where it is often sold in wildflower seed mixes.

Other mallows found in the Maltese countryside are the tree mallow (ħobbejża tas-siġra), the common mallow (ħobbejża kommuni) and the Cretan mallow (ħobbejża wieqfa).

The large-flowered mallow does not seem to have any medicinal properties but the other mallows were often in demand for their ability to cure several ailments. They are rich in mucilage which are good emollients. They are used to treat throat infections and against catarrh in the bronchi. They are also used as a cure against diarrhea and colic, as well as a laxative.

The Romans used the common mallow as food and medicine and – together with the marsh mallow, mulleins and pellitory – it was used in the preparation of a well known cough remedy.

Galen, who lived in the second century in Asia Minor, considered it a good-tasting strong medicine; others used it to refresh themselves during hot summer days.

The English name comes from the Latin word mollire which means to soften; while the Maltese name means small loaf, which refers to the shape of the fruit. 

This article appeared in The Times on 28.04.10

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Garlic and its medicinal properties

Garlic is a species in the onion family. Its close relatives include the onion, shallot, leek and chive. Several wild species belonging to this family can be found growing in the Maltese countryside include two endemic species.

The Maltese dwarf garlic (tewm irqiq ta’ Malta) is a small delicate plant that grows in shallow depressions with a thin layer of soil in garigue habitat. It has white flowers which appear in the hot months of June and July when few people venture out in the countryside.

 Until some years ago this plant was mistaken for another species which is found also in Sardinia and Corsica but further studies by Italian and Maltese botanists including Edwin Lanfranco have shown that it is a separate species found only in the Maltese islands.

Another member of the onion family, the Maltese leek (kurrat ta’ Malta), is probably endemic to the Maltese islands but further botanical studies are needed before one can be sure of the exact identity of this plant and other closely related species.

The origins of cultivated garlic are unknown but it is now grown in large quantities in many parts of the world. The largest producer is China which produces 77% of the world garlic. The second and third largest garlic produces India and South Korea trail far behind. 

Garlic is cultivated in the Maltese islands in small amounts. It is harvested mostly in early spring, before it is fully mature, to be used as stuffing for artichokes. 

Garlic is very easy to grow by planting individual cloves in the soil in late autumn at about the same time as the bulbs of other flowering plants. Each clove gives rise to a single plant which in early spring produces a bulb with several cloves. A few large pots can supply enough garlic to last for several weeks or months.

Garlic has been used as food and medicine for thousands of years. Its pungent flavour is a requisite for many dishes in various parts of the world including Malta where it is one of the main ingredients of the Maltese fish soup known as aljotta, and the snail condiment known as aljoli. The names of these two dishes are in fact derived from the Italian name for garlic aglio.

This article was published in The Times 05.05.10

Flies and their reputation

Flies have a bad reputation because some species are ‘harmful’ to humans even though some of these species actually do more good than harm.

Flies belong to an order known as diptera. Diptera is made up of two words, di (two) and ptera (wing). Flies have one pair of wings a feature that distinguishes them from all other insects including several species which have the word fly in their name such as mayflies, fireflies and sawflies. 

Some flies mimic other insects such as bees and wasps. This fools predatory species such as birds but the lack of a second pair of wings gives them away to any careful observer.

It is believed that there are hundreds of thousands of species of flies although half of these have not yet been identified. The situation is similar in Malta as species new to science are still being identified on a regular basis.

I love to be close to nature surrounded by wild plants and animals but mosquitoes which are flies I can live without not only because they sometimes keep me from sleeping properly but also because some species can transmit diseases such as malaria. Sand flies are just as annoying and are vectors for leishmania, a parasitic protozoan responsible for the disease leishmaniasis.

The housefly is another pest that can carry serious diseases. It is the most common of all domestic flies and is one of the most widely distributed insects. It feed on faeces, open sores, and moist decaying organic matter such as spoiled food, eggs and flesh. 

Houseflies can take in only liquid foods. They spit out saliva on solid foods to predigest it, and then suck it back in. They also regurgitate partly digested matter and pass it again to the abdomen. Because of their high intake of food, they deposit feces constantly, one of the factors that makes the insect a dangerous carrier of microbes. They can fly long distances and a fly entering through the kitchen window might have just arrived from an animal farm a considerable distance away. 

This article was published in The Times on 12.05.10

Pyramidal orchids stunningly beautiful

Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis)
Pyramidal orchids are stunningly beautiful. In Malta they usually grow in open spaces emerging out of the short vegetation like a brightly coloured high-rise tower. 

Two species are found in Malta one of which is endemic to the Maltese islands although some years ago it was found in Puglia in Italy. The common pyramidal orchid, known in Maltese as orkida piramidali flowers in April and May while the Maltese pyramidal orchid (orkida piramidali ta’ Malta), which is not as common as the pyramidal orchid, flowers between February and April. 

The two species are very similar in shape and colour although the endemic species is usually smaller and has pale pink or white flowers.

The pyramidal orchid is found in southwestern Eurasia from Western Europe through the Mediterranean region eastwards to Iran. It can grow up to 30 cm although in Malta it is usually much smaller probably as a result of the shallow soil in which it grows and the effect of the wind. The flowers are pollinated by butterflies and moths. 

Orchid pollination was first described by Charles Darwin in 1862 in the book ‘Fertilisation of Orchids’ which had the self explanatory title ‘On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing’. 

This was Darwin’s second book after the better known ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life’ which was later renamed ‘On the Origin of species’.

 Before writing this book Charles Darwin had spent five years going around the world on the ship HMS Beagle during which he collected plants, animals and rocks and which led him to formulate his theory of natural selection better known as the theory of evolution.

This article was published in The Times on 19.05.10

Ocellated skink

Ocellated skink (Chalcides ocellatus)
The skink is a common reptile with a long cylindrical body and very small weak legs. These are used to push the animal forward when walking slowly, but when it is escaping from danger it pulls them along its sides and slithers over the ground like a snake.

The skink, known in Maltese as xaħmet l-art, lives in sandy places and in fields.

Skinks feed on a variety of creatures. Their food includes snails, beetles, grasshoppers and small lizards.
It spends much of its time close to stonewalls. It is usually a shy creature but although it is sometimes difficult to spot as it instantly disappears when approached, one can tell that it is present by the sound of its body moving swiftly over dry leaves and other vegetation as it hurries to its burrow.

 I photographed this specimen while it was warming itself in the sun on a stone that forms part of a dry stone wall along a path at Fiddien. I managed to get just one picture before it disappeared between the stones.

Being shy and afraid of other animals is vital for most animals as otherwise they would quickly fall victim to predators. Individuals that are not shy do not become adults and are eliminated from the population before reaching breeding age.

The reverse is true in places where animals do not have to face such dangers. Shy individuals are not removed from the population. Fearless individuals breed over generations the population becomes less shy. Many years ago I visited Ottenby Nature Reserve on the island Oland off the Swedish coast.

The animals in the reserve have been protected for at least two hundred years and have become so tame that both hares and fallow deer, two very shy game species, have lost their fear of man. One particular hare was so tame that I managed to photograph it from less than three metres away.

At the Ghadira Nature Reserve where hunting has not been allowed for thirty years, rabbits are also loosing their fear of man. A few rabbits are so tame that they continue feeding without fear even when approached somebody walks by just a couple of metres away.

This article was published in The Times on 26.05.10

Wild Artichoke

Wild artichoke (Cynara cardunculus)
The wild artichoke is known by several names probably as a result of the popularity of this plant as a food and in traditional medicine. 

It is known as the artichoke thistle, cardoon, cardone, cardoni, carduni or just cardi. In Maltese it is known as qaqoċċ tax-xewk. It is the wild variety of the cultivated globe artichoke, the popular Maltese vegetable qaqoċċ.

Wild artichoke is common in clayey areas and disturbed ground especially abandoned fields and roadsides. It is recognized by the large spiny leaves and also by the large bluish flowers which can be seen from late spring to early summer. 

It can be found growing along the road that runs along the valley leading to and from Chadwick Lakes. The flowers which resemble those of a large thistle attract large numbers of insects especially beetles.

The wild artichoke grows up to one metre while the cultivated version can grow up to two meters. It is a native of the Mediterranean and has been cultivated since ancient times. In the fourth century BC Theophrastus, a Greek writer, wrote about it as it was already popular in Greek cuisine. Its popularity continued in Roman times right through the medieval period until early modern times. 

The cultivated varieties are grown in parts of France, Spain and Italy and Malta.

In Tunisia I tasted a meat stew which contained the fleshy central part of the wild artichoke. A similar dish, the Cocido madrinelo, a slow-cooking, one-pot, meat and vegetable dinner simmered in broth is one of the national dishes of Spain.

The wild artichoke is used as a vegetarian source of enzymes for cheese production. In Portugal, traditional coagulation of the curd relies entirely on this vegetable rennet. It has also been considered as a possible source of bio diesel. The oil extracted from its seeds is called artichoke oil and it can be used as a table or cooking oil.

Artichoke is the primary flavour of the Italian liqueur Cynar which is used as an aperitif. It is popular as it improved digestion as a chemical known as cynara increases the flow of bile.

This article appeared in The Times on 09.06.10

Insects in Maltese culture

Insects have had since antiquity had an important role in culture and tradition.

 Humans have an ambivalent relationship with animals. Some species are seen as competitors for scant resources or dangerous and harmful while others are looked at in a more positive way because they are beautiful, useful or both. 

This rapport continuously influences our culture including the language, art and literature.

 In earlier times it gave rise to myths, folktales and proverbs especially among those who came in contact with animals regularly including those working in agriculture. Interest in insects and small animals continues today although probably there have been changes in the way we perceive these creatures.

Today we constantly hear and read about the need to appreciate and protect nature but this has not always been so. In former times most animals were looked at as either beneficial or harmful and for those who worked closely with nature work consisted mostly of attempts to eliminate competing nature from the immediate surroundings. 

At a popular level one finds various examples of other more intimate rapports with insects. Some of the more popular insects including the dragonfly are the subject of folktales myths and children’s stories. The dragonfly is often associated with hell and the devil, while the ant and honey bee are seen as promoters of thrift and hard work.

In recent years a new area of study known as cultural entomology has appeared. This area of study exposes how insects play a major role in almost every aspect of human culture.

In many parts of Asia for example crickets are kept as pets. They are kept in beautifully decorated cages and taken care of by their owners. In some Mediterranean countries crickets were also kept as pets.

 Cages were purposely built for these insects although in Malta they were more often kept in a metal can. This tradition survived in Malta at least until the early sixties because I remember seeing children collecting crickets to take them home and keep them as pets.

Another well known insect, the silkworm, is also very popular in Asia where it is still bred in large numbers to produce silk. The silkworm which is the caterpillar of a moth was at times also bred in Malta but in spite of several attempts to start this industry it never became commercially viable.

This article appeared in The Times on 02.06.10

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The large blue alkanet

Large blue alkanet (Anchusa azurea)
The large blue alkanet is not a large plant and neither are its startlingly blue flowers but they beat competition for your attention and presumably that of insects hands down.

 It can grow in arid, poor soils where plants often remain sparse and small and even though I have never seen it growing higher than 40 cm it seems to tower among the other stunted plants surrounding it. It grows along roadsides, in abandoned fields and in olive groves throughout the Mediterranean flowering in late spring around the Mediterranean. 

When the flower buds first appear they are purple and coiled opening gradually to a deep ultramarine. It is known in Maltese as ilsien il-fart ikħal which in English would be blue ox tongue.

It is a member of the borage family and belongs to a genus of about 40 species known as the Anchusa which is found in Europe, North Africa, South Africa and Western Asia. They have now been introduced in the USA. They can be annual, biennial or perennial plants

The roots of the anchusas contain a red-brown chemical known as anchusin which is used for colouring in fact anchusa is the Greek word for face make-up paint.

A similar species is the blue hound’s tongue which has smaller pink or purple flowers. This species, known in Maltese as lsien il-kelb is found in disturbed areas and wasteland as well as in some valleys such as Wied Babu and Buskett. 

It flowers earlier than the large blue alkanet as the flowers can be seen as early as April. It is another Mediterranean species which can also be found in the Middle East as far as Iran but which has established itself as a weed in other parts of the world including Argentina and Chile. It was first recorded in Australia in 1898 and in 1933 a naturalised population was discovered in New South Wales.

 It is feared that this species could establish itself in that continent where it can potentially cause a lot of harm to the native flora and to livestock. Its leaves are believed to be toxic when eaten by these animals.

 In Malta and in the rest of the Mediterranean, it never grows in profusion and is not a weed but outside its natural range, it can become an obnoxious weed in the same way as the cape sorrel (ħaxixa ngliża) which is the commonest weed in Malta but not in South Africa where it is native. 

This article was published in The Times 16.06.10

The silvery ragwort plant

Silvery ragwort (Senecio bicolor)

Summer started officially two days ago but the weather is still relatively cool and it is still possible to walk in the countryside, especially in early morning, without feeling too hot. 

At this time of the year one can find several interesting species of late-flowering plants as well as insects. It is worth waking up earlier to see them.

One of these is the silvery ragwort, a perennial plant that has silver felt-like leaves. It starts flowering in mid-spring but in early summer you can find larger numbers in flower. It is a native of the Mediterranean region also known as dusty miller. 

Its Maltese name is kromb il-baħar

It is common in wasteland especially close to the coast. It is a poisonous plant but has been used medicinally to reduce anxiety and as an antispasmodic.

The yellow, daisy-like flowers create a wonderful contrast to its leaves. The plants grow to a height of 60cm and bear the flowers in dense flat-topped clusters. Each flower has a centre of disc florets surrounded by conspicuous, well-separated ray florets.

The silvery ragwort belongs to the aster family (Asteraceae) which in earlier times was known as the composite family (Compositeae). In more familiar words it belongs to the daisy family. This is the largest family of plants with more than 22,750 species. Most of the species are herbaceous plants. These are plants that have leaves and stems that die down at the end of the growing season to the soil level. These plants are especially common in open and dry environments.

The name Asteraceae is derived from the word aster, which is a Greek term, meaning "star".
Many essential products are derived from the daisy family these include cooking oils, lettuce, sunflower seeds and artichokes. Many popular gardening plants such as the marigolds, chrysanthemums, dahlias and zinnias are members of this large family.

This article appeared in the Times 23.06.10

Castor oil and its origins

Castor oil plant (Ricinus communis)

Castor oil is produced from the seeds of the castor oil plant known in Maltese as siġra tar-riċnu.  This tree is a native of east Africa but is now cultivated for its seeds and as a garden plant in most warm parts of the world. In Malta it is an introduced species that grows profusely in some valleys.

 It is very common at Għajn Riħana and Chadwick Lakes as well as around the Valletta fortifications and other urban areas. It has taken over some areas at the cost of local species and where it grows it leaves little space for less aggressive species.

The oil is used extensively in the manufacture of soaps, lubricants, hydraulic and brake fluids, paints, pharmaceuticals and perfumes. It is mixed with sulphuric acid to produce Turkey Red Oil which is the only oil that completely disperses in water thus making it useful for the manufacture of bath oils. It was the first synthetic detergent after ordinary soap.

The seeds contain a dangerous chemical known as ricin while the rest of the plant contains other poisons which can cause allergic reactions and permanent nerve damage. Agricultural workers in India, Brazil and China often suffer harmful side effects because of these chemicals.

 Chemists are thus trying to find alternative chemicals to be used instead of castor oil while plant geneticists are trying to develop varieties which do not contain ricin.

Castor oil is also used in food additives, flavourings and in packaging. It is sometimes used as a laxative in the treatment of constipation and a derivative is used as a treatment for skin disorders. Other products derived from castor oil are used in skin conditioners, shampoo, lipstick and lip balm.

Castor oil has been and is still used in traditional medicine to treat skin problems, burns, skin cuts and abrasions.

It is also used as a rub for abdominal pains, headaches, muscle pains, inflammatory conditions, lesions and sinusitis. It has been used to induce childbirth but this use has been discontinued as its use causes a lot of stress to the mother and baby and leaves the woman dehydrated as a result of vomiting and diarrhea.

In south Egypt, women use a large spoonful dosage of castor oil to prevent pregnancy for one year. In is said that in Fascist Italy paramilitary groups used to force-feed castor oil to political dissidents. This was followed by a beating with a night stick. Sometimes the victims died while those who survived had to suffer the humiliation of the laxative effects of the castor oil.

This article appeared in The Times of 30.06.10

The Maltese Centaury

Maltese Rock Centaury (Cheirolophus crassifolius)

This month you have the last chance to see the flowers of the Maltese rock centaury, Malta’s National plant, for this year. If you do not see it now you will have to wait until May of next year to see it. 

You can find it growing along the cliffs in the north-west and south of Malta. On Gozo, the best place to see this plant is at Ta’ Ċenċ Cliffs, which can be reached through the street on the left hand side of the Sannat Parish Church. 

Alternatively you can look for cultivated plants in a public but this is a very poor substitute to seeing these plants growing in their native habitat and there is no other place in the world where you can see it growing wild because the Maltese rock centaury is endemic to the Maltese islands.

 It is technically known as a paleoendemic that is a species that once had a widespread distribution, but is now restricted to a particular area. A non-Maltese example of a palaeoendemic is the kiwi, a bird species which was once widespread on the ancient continent of Gondwana. When this continent split up and formed today’s continents the kiwi became extinct on all the continents but survived on the island of New Zealand.

In Maltese this species it is known as widnet il-baħar a beautiful name that means ‘ear of the sea’.
The Maltese rock centaury is a threatened species. 

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists it as Critically Endangered because it is found in a restricted area and its population is fragmented while its habitat is threatened. 

It is believed that this species is declining and unless action is taken it will continue to decline. It has become difficult to find young plants and most of the existing plants are older specimens which will eventually die and unless they are replaced by new plants this species might become extinct. 

There are several reasons for this state of affair most of which are the result of destruction and degradation of its habitat. Several cliff faces are being destroyed as the boulders on which the plants grow fall into the sea as a result of the explosions in nearby quarries. 

Dumping of rubbish from the cliff tops has destroyed a lot of habitats while plants in accessible and not so accessible sites are trampled upon and killed by fishermen who climb down the cliffs and young people abseiling. Another threat comes from invasive non-native species of plants such as the Hottentot fig and the prickly pear which are getting a foothold on the cliffs in competition with the local plants.

Saving Malta’s national plant from extinction in the wild should be given priority. Action should be taken to protect its habitat, laws should be enforced and management plans drawn up for the areas in which it grows. 

This article was published in The Times on 07.07.2010