Saturday, May 19, 2012

The moonflower – an alien species

The moonflower is another alien species that first came to Malta as a cultivated garden plant and which is now thriving in the Maltese countryside. Although it is not as common as some other alien species such as the ubiquitous Cape sorrel (ħaxixa ngliża), when present, it is very noticeable because of its large leaves and white or pink flowers.

The flowers of the moonflower open at night and close early in the morning. Their light colour, large size and fragrance make it easier for the flowers to be seen in the dark especially by moths particularly the hawk moths.

The moonflower is a native of the tropical and sub-tropical parts of the American continent. It can be found all the way from northern Argentina to Mexico and Florida.

In Malta this species usually flowers between March and July but in gardens, where it is watered in summer, and in humid valley bottoms it can continue blooming until much later.

This plant is rich in sulfur, an element which is still used in vulcanisation of rubber, a process discovered by Charles Goodyear in 1839 but in southern America, the natives had been using the moonflower to vulcanise the latex of two plants to make bouncing rubber balls 3,000 years before him.

The moon flower belongs to the convolvulus or bindweed family the group in which we find many species of bindweeds which are known in Maltese as leblieb as well as the morning glories. It is in fact it is most closely related to the garden morning glory, the popular garden plant. 

A number of closely related species are used as food while others are used medicinally. Others contain psychoactive substances which were used in religious and spiritual ceremonies to induce an altered mental state similar to that from modern drugs such as LSD, opium and some mushrooms. 

This article was published in The Times on 14.09.11

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