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

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