Saturday, August 14, 2010

The common fresia - a member of South Africa's iris family

The freesia is another non-indigenous species that was cultivated in Maltese gardens that now grows in the Maltese countryside. It is a South African member of the iris family. There are about 16 species of freesias. 

Fourteen are native to the Cape Province in South Africa and two are found in tropical Africa as far north as Sudan. The genus was named after Friedrich Heinrich Theodor Freese, a German physician who lived between 1795 and 1876.

The common freesia, which is known in Maltese as freżja, has grassy foliage, and wiry spikes of bell-like, lemon-scented flowers in white, yellow, orange and blue. A few decades ago only white-coloured freesias were cultivated but nowadays many other varieties and hybrids can be found in flower and gardening shops. These usually are larger than the old variety and come in an incredible variety of colours. 

Due to their specific and pleasing scent, they are often used in the manufacture of hand creams, shampoos and candles.

In Malta the common freesia can be found growing in such places as Buskett Gardens and the grounds of Verdala Palace. It manages to grow wild because parts of South Africa, where this species comes from, like the Maltese islands has a Mediterranean climate. 

This climate is characterised by warm to hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters. South Africa is not the only part of the world with a similar climate to ours. This climatic type is also found in much of California, in parts of Western and South Australia, and in parts of central Chile.

Freesias are used as a food plant by the larvae of some moth species including the large yellow underwing, known in Maltese as baħrija safra kbira. This is a very common species of moth found throughout most of Europe and North Africa extending east all the way to India. It can be seen between March and May and again between August and November. 

This article was published in The Times on 17.02.2010

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