Thursday, July 8, 2010

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

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