Garigue is one of the main natural habitats in Malta. The other main habitats are the steppe, maquis and woodland.
It is found in other parts of the Mediterranean in areas with limestone soils usually near the coast where the conditions are not as hot and dry as further inland.
In Maltese garigue is known as xagħri. In Greece it is known as phrygana, in Spain as tomillares and in Israel as batha.
In the American west a similar habitat is known as chaparral. Garigue is best described as open rocky areas with pitted and fissured ground in which one can find a thin layer of soil. In other parts of the Mediterranean and probably in Malta as well garigue was formed as a result of the cutting down of the original trees to create land for agriculture by prehistoric man as well as by grazing of domestic animals and fires.
Garigue vegetation is low and usually consists of aromatic shrubs such as the Mediterranean thyme (sagħtar) Mediterranean heath (erika), spurges (tengħud), the olive-leaved germander (żebbuġija) and the white hedge-nettle (te Sqalli) amongst others. Very often one particular species of plant dominates a particular area.
It is believed that these shrubs produce aromatic oils and other chemicals which leach into the soil and these prevent the growth of other plants in the vicinity especially annuals.
This gives rise to the characteristic open spaces of garigue areas. The flowers of garigue shrubs are an important source of nectar which is collected by bees to form honey. Malta has been well known since antiquity for its thyme honey and it is believed that the name Melita is derived from the Greek word for honey.
Much of the garigue of the Maltese islands has disappeared. Vast areas have been built upon and tracts have been covered with soil and converted into fields. Some areas have been ‘reclaimed’ and planted with trees. There are now fewer thyme bushes for bees to visit with a consequential loss in the production of thyme honey.
It is not possible to bring back lost garigue but it is important that what is left is protected. It is also possible to increase the amount of thyme and native plants in gardens and in urban areas.
This would help native species of insects and other animals and provide bees with nectar. The Environment Landscape Consortium would do well to plant these plants in areas for which they are responsible such as roundabouts and road verges instead of non-indigenous species with no ecological value. These plants have the added value that they require very little water thus reducing the amount of water used in keeping these areas green.
This article was published in The Times on 27.01.2010