Sunday, April 17, 2011

Roadside vegetation

Common mallow (Malva sylvestris)
Road verges, especially in rural areas, often provide the right conditions for many species of wild plants to grow along them. 

In a densely populated island like ours where much of the original natural habitats had to give way to buildings, roads and agriculture and as a result of this road sides have become important because they can also provide a good habitat for several species of animals especially insects and reptiles. 

They can also act as corridors linking a number of habitats together and can facilitate the dispersal and migration of plants and animals from one place to another.

Many of the plant species that grow in these spaces are adapted to live in disturbed habitats but this does not reduce their importance in the ecology of the Maltese islands. 

Unfortunately there still exists the mentality that all wild plants are weeds which compete directly with humans and must therefore be destroyed. 

In former years farmers weeded their fields with their bare hands or with a hoe. Nowadays they have an arsenal of herbicides with which to get rid of plants which are considered as competitors. And the fight is no longer limited to a small area surrounding their trees and crops.

Herbicides were also used to kill the vegetation growing along country roads. I have not seen this practice for some years now and it might have been stopped although some localities hire persons to remove wild plants growing along country roads  

This destruction of precious fauna and flora must stop. We need a complete change of attitude and start looking at verges as important habitats for our flora and fauna.

We should also start looking at roundabouts and centre-strips as potential habitats. These sites are being planted with cultivated plants with no ecological value. These plants do not support any wildlife while some need large quantities of water to maintain a resource which needs to be conserved.

Management plants to improve the biodiversity of all these sites should be drawn up to ensure that they are managed properly so that indigenous plants are encouraged to grow in them and thus provide a habitat and food for our fauna especially insects including butterflies and bees. 

This article was published in The Times on 16.03.2011

The white mignonette

White mignonette (Reseda alba)
The white mignonette is an unmistakable perennial plant found growing along road sides, on disturbed ground, in rocky habitats and garigue. 

It grows throughout the Mediterranean region but is more common in the western part. It can now also be found in the Americas and Australia as an introduced species as well as in most parts of the world as a cultivated garden plant. 

In Malta it can be seen growing on walls including old buildings and bastions but not as a garden plant.

It flowers from January to May. The inflorescence, which may take up most of the upper stem, is densely packed with many small creamy-white flowers. Each flower has five or six petals, each of which is divided into three long, narrow lobes, making it appear frilly. 

The inflorescence has a symmetrical shape which gives the plant a very attractive appearance even before the flowers are open.

Two species of mignonettes are found in Malta. The most common is the white mignonette which is known in Maltese as denb il-ħaruf  because of the shape of its inflorescence, which looks very much like a lamb’s tail.

The yellow mignonette is known as denb il-ħaruf isfar. It has pale yellow flowers but is rare and can be overlooked for the white flowered species.

The mignonettes belong to the reseda family. Reseda is a Latin word meaning to assuage or calm because these species are supposed t have sedative properties.

Another member of this family, the dyer’s rocket, which does not grow in the Maltese islands, was used in Roman times as a sedative and to treat bruises. 

A volatile oil was extracted from its roots to be used in perfumery as far back as the first millennium BC but its use came to an end in the beginning of the 20th century with the discovery of cheap synthetic dyes.

The white mignonette is the food plant of among other things the bath white. This is a species of butterfly related to the more common large and small whites. The caterpillar is blue with yellow lines on the back and sides and many black spots. 

This article was published in The Times on 08.03.2011

Sand crocus

The sand-crocus is a small flowering plant that must to be looked at closely to be appreciated properly. 

It is found throughout the Mediterranean area. In Malta it grows in patches of shallow soil in rocky areas. It is a perennial plant which spends the dry summer months beneath the surface as a bulb. 

In autumn, following the first substantial rainfall it produces a small number of slender leaves. The first flowers appear in February when the surrounding vegetation is still green and they continue to flower until April by which time much of the surrounding vegetation begins to dry up.

In Maltese it is known as żagħfran tal-blat. Another similar but less common species, the Maltese sand-crocus (żagħfran tal-blat ta’ Malta) is endemic to the Maltese islands. This species is distinguished from the more widespread species by having very narrow petals.

The sand-crocuses belong to a genus known as the Romulea. The name of this genus is derived from that of Romulus one of the two brothers who are said to have founded Rome because one member of this genus is very common in the Roman countryside.

The sand-crocuses belong to the iris family. This family is represented in the Maltese islands by several species of irises including the barbary nut (fjurdulis salvaġġ) and the southern dwarf iris (bellus), the field gladiolus (ħabb il-qamħ tar-raba) and the crocuses. 

This article was published in The Times on 02.02.2011

Shooting of the spoonbills

It happened again. Last Friday’s storm forced several flocks of migrating spoonbills to seek shelter in the Maltese islands. 

The spoonbills were wintering in Africa, possibly in Tunisia where I have seen this species wintering in saltpans. The spoonbill can be found in Eurasia from Spain to Japan but in Europe it is restricted mainly to the Netherlands, Spain, Austria, Hungary and Greece. 

The birds shot last Friday were returning to their breeding grounds in Europe.

The shooting of a single spoonbill is despicable. Shooting several is contemptible and shameful. It can easily make an impact on the number of breeding spoonbills in a colony and it could be years before the size of the colony recovers.

These massacres have been going on for a long time and it is about time that they are stopped. 

When I was a kid I was once shocked to see tens of hunters shooting at several flocks of herons trying to seek shelter in St Thomas Bay during a storm. At the time shooting herons was not illegal and the hunters were all bragging and showing off their trophies. 

I remember one hunter claiming to have shot twenty one birds but he collected only seven as the rest were too badly mutilated and could not be stuffed and mounted for his collection. Things should have changed but unfortunately they have not. 

This is not an issue of hunters being faced with new legislation and finding it ‘impossible’ to adapt. Spoonbills have been protected for thirty years. Many of today’s hunters were not even born when it became illegal to shoot at a spoonbill while most hunters below the age of fifty started hunting when the spoonbill was already protected.

Hunters have been shooting at protected birds for three decades and it is about time for this reprehensible activity to be stopped. The hunting federation has condemned the illegal shooting of the spoonbills but this is not enough. 

The hunting organisations have had more than enough time in which to control their members but have failed to do so. They are now trying to convince one and all that if they are allowed to hunt in spring they will behave and will not shoot at protected birds but actions speak louder than words.

The government should stop trying to appease hunters. It should not even consider allowing hunting in spring when birds are returning to their breeding grounds and it should bring Malta in line with the rest of Europe once and for all. (This article was published on 23.02.2011).

The rockets

The white wall rocket which is also known as the white mustard, ġarġir abjad in Maltese, is a very common annual plant with small white flowers. 

It can be seen from early autumn to late spring in disturbed soils especially in fields. The closely related perennial wall rocket (ġarġir isfar) has yellow flowers. Were it not for the fact that both species grow in large numbers, sometimes covering whole patches of ground, they would easily be overlooked.

The rockets belong to the crucifer family, an important family which is sometimes also known as the mustard or cabbage family. The name crucifer means “cross-bearing” because the flowers have four petals arranged in the shape of a cross. 

Members of this family can be found growing on most continents especially in northern temperate regions although their stronghold are the countries surrounding the Mediterranean. 

The crucifer family consists of about 3,700 species among which are several that have been selectively bred to produces several vegetables including cabbages, turnips, radishes and rapeseed. The stocks (ġiżi) also form part of this family. Some species are also of medicinal importance.

One species in this family has been cultivated for a very long time and has been selectively bred into so many varieties that it now provides ten of the most common vegetables. These include the cabbages, cauliflowers, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi and broccoli among others. 

These vegetables are recommended as healthy foods because they are rich in vitamin C and soluble fibres as well as many nutrients and other chemicals which are known to have anti-cancer properties.

The best known species, the cabbage, is one of the oldest vegetables. In Greek times it was believed that the cabbage plant sprouted form the perspiration of Zeus and was given to women just before giving birth to induce a good flow of breast milk. The Romans used it as an antidote to alcohol so as to prevent a hangover. 

This article was published in The Times on 15.02.2011