Friday, February 4, 2011

Goat snails

Goat Snail (Cantareus apertus)
Ask any Maltese who collects snails for cooking about which species of snail can be eaten and the answer is always that only one snail, the edible snail, can be eaten. 

All other species are inedible because they have a bitter taste. The edible snail is listed in books as għakrux raġel but most people refer to it as bebbuxu tal-ikel

In Gozo a ninety four year old man informed me that in the past Gozitans ate the red banded snail which is known in Maltese as għakrux mara. He said that there was nothing wrong with the taste of this snail but it was not easy to extract the snail from the shell as when it was cooked it remained deep inside the shell and one had to gently break the shell and wash away the shell fragments. 

This required a lot of time and patience so snail collectors have learnt that this species of snail is inedible but do not known the reason why.

These same people insist that the worst tasting snail is the goat snail which is known in Maltese as mogħża or sometimes bebbuxu iswed because of its very dark flesh. All those I asked said that it has a very bad taste but none had ever tried eating it. 

But in southern Italy the goat snail is cooked regularly. 

The people of Salento prepare the municeddhi cu lla panna which they proudly claim to be a specialty of the area. They collect the snails when they have the white seal known as operculum. This is a hard substance which many snails produce to seal themselves within the shell so as to avoid desiccation during dry periods. These people claim that this snail has a more delicate taste and is less bitter than the edible snail. 

It is so popular that it can be found for sale in open air markets and traditional fruit and vegetable vendors. It might be that the people of Salento have learnt to collect these snails when they do not have any bitter taste while the Maltese never learnt this.

The goat snail is a common species in the Maltese countryside. It is found in Mediterranean countries in garigue and steppe habitats especially near cultivated fields in areas where its favorite food plant, the squill, grows in abundance. It is seen in the rainy season and quickly disappears when it is not raining. It has been introduced in Australia and America where it has become a pest. 

This article was published in The Times on 02.02.11

Blue bottles

Bluebottle (Calliphora vicina)
The bluebottle is a common fly. It sometimes enters houses but in winter you are more likely to see it in the countryside especially on sunny days as it sunbathes in a sheltered place to warm up its body. 

It is slightly larger than the much common housefly and has a grey head and abdomen and a bright metallic blue abdomen. 

The body and legs are covered in short stiff hair which is not easily seen with the naked eye unless you manage to get very close to a sedentary fly.

The eggs are laid in decaying meat or other organic material on which the maggots can feed. The maggots are fully grown in a few days and when mature they move to a dry patch of soil and bury themselves below the surface to pupate. 

The cocoon takes from two to three weeks to metamorphose into an adult fly.

In autumn bluebottles visit the flowers of the carob tree. They are attracted to the flowers because of their strong smell of rotting vegetation and are important pollinators of this tree.

The bluebottle is known in Maltese as żarżura while the closely related greenbottle is known as dehbija tal-ħmieġ, These two names might have been coined by naturalists or they might have been used in the past but are not used anymore as the Maltese nowadays refer to most flies as dubbien without being aware of the various species that they meet in their everyday life.

These two species belong to a group of flies known as blow-flies. This name comes from the old English term for meat on which a fly had laid eggs, which was fly-blown. It is estimated that there are over 1,100 species of blowflies. Six of them are found n the Maltese islands. Blowflies are known carriers of disease including dysentery. 

This article was published in The Times on 26.01.11

Warning colours

Soldier bug (Spilostethus pandurus)
Animals with bright colours or contrasting patterns often have an active means of defence that they want to. This is known as warning or aposematic colouration. 

These species do not bother to hide themselves as they advertise the fact that they have an effective mode of defence being either unpalatable or other dangerous. 

Many insects such as several species of bugs and ladybirds have bitter tasting chemicals produced by special glands. Wasps warn potential predators that they have a painful sting.

Predators quickly learn that insects with particular colours or patterns should be left alone. They learn by mistakes which means that some individuals are eaten but their sacrifice is good for the survival of the species as a whole.

Warning colouration is so effective that harmless organisms sometimes mimic harmful animals and use the same colours to defend themselves even though they themselves are not dangerous. 

To be effective the number of mimicking organisms must be much less than that of the unpalatable or dangerous species as otherwise predators would not learn to leave them alone. This type of mimicry is known as Batesian mimicry. 

Another type of mimicry is known as Mullerian mimicry. This occurs when different species of unpalatable or dangerous animals adopt the same colouration thus reinforcing the message and ensuring that fewer individuals need to be sacrificed for predators to learn to leave animals with similar colours or patterns alone.

The soldier bug, known in Maltese as suldat, is a common insect that can be seen running on the ground or at the base of several species of plants. 

At this time of the year it can also be seen on sunny days on a south facing stone or trunk to warm itself up in the early morning sun. It belongs to the suborder Heteroptera (true bugs) which forms part of the order Hemiptera. At first glance it could easily be mistaken for a fire bug another common insect known in Maltese as seffud tal-ġamar, a case of Mullerian mimicry. 

This article was published in The Times on 19.01.11

The early orchids

Fan-lipped orchid
We have several of species of orchids in the Maltese islands. The best time to see many of them in flower is in March but some species flower earlier or later than that and to see all of them one needs to look for them throughout the flowering season.

From a botanical point of view I prefer to think of the year as starting in September which is the month when we usually get the first substantial rains after summer. 

The earliest orchid to flower is thus the autumn ladies tresses which is in flower as early as October and November. 

This is a very small innocuous plant with white or pale green flowers growing in a spiral around a vertical spike. It is a rare species which I have not seen for a number of years. In Maltese it is known as ħajja u mejta meaning ‘dead and alive’ a name generally given to all orchids because they are characterised by having two tubers one of which is swollen and the other shrivelled.

In December one can find the Cretan blue orchid (dubbiena bikrija). This was formerly known as the brown orchid and was considered as a very variable species. Some botanists now believe that this is not one species but three each of which has distinguishing characteristics but one needs to examine them carefully to be able to tell them apart.

Last weekend while taking pictures at Wardija I found the fan-lipped orchid (orkida ħamra) and very soon I expect to find an early flowering species, the scented bug orchid (orkida tfuħ). Soon after that another species which in recent years was renamed will appear - the conical orchid (orkida tat-tikek). This was formerly known as the milky orchid.

The last orchid to flower is the common pyramidal orchid (orkida piramidali) which can be seen in flower in April and May when the surrounding vegetation has already started to dry up and shrivel. 

The changing nomenclature of this group of plants can sometimes be very confusing and frustrating but this should not put people off from enjoying their beauty. This is the best time to start looking for orchids and to start a photographic collection of all the local species. 

All one has to do is to dedicate a few enjoyable hours every week to wander in the countryside. Orchids can be difficult to find but once you see one plant you will start seeing others in the vicinity and then you start wondering how you could have missed seeing them earlier. 

This article was published in The Times on 12.01.11

The annual daisy

The annual daisy is a small flowering plant with a typical daisy structure consisting of several white petals surrounding many small yellow florets. It is a common plant which can be found in various habitats especially in damp humid places throughout the Mediterranean flowering from November to March.

 In Maltese it is known as bebuna.

The closely related southern daisy, margerita salvaġġa in Maltese, is larger and flowers in autumn and winter. These two species are very similar and difficult to tell apart unless one looked carefully at the whole structure of the plant especially the leaves.

The two species belong to the aster family which also known as the daisy or sunflower family. This is the largest family of flowering plants consisting of more than 23,000 species. 

The asters are found throughout the world but they are most common in cooler regions.

Their most characteristic feature is the shape of the inflorescence which is often mistaken for a single flower as it consists of a dense cluster surrounded by large petals. 

The inflorescence consists of two types of flowers. In the centre one finds several small flowers with five small petals which form a tube. At the outer side of the circle there are similar flowers each of which has a large petal. Together these flowers give rise to the daisy shaped flowering head that characterises these flowers.

In this large family we find many important species. Many are cultivated commercially and are important agricultural crops. Among these we find the lettuce, globe artichokes, and Jerusalem artichokes. Another important species is the chamomile. The pot marigold is grown for herbal tea and the potpourri industry. 

This article was published in The Times on 05.01.11