The sandarac is Malta’s national tree. It was presumably chosen because of its rarity in the Maltese islands.
Its main range is in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Outside North West Africa it is found only in Malta and Cartagena in southeast Spain.
It is a conifer and like all conifers the seeds are produced in cones.
In this species the cones are between ten and fifteen millimetres long. When young they are green, turning brown as they age.
They consist of four thick scales arranged in pairs to form an uneven sphere. When the cones open, the seeds which have papery wings float gently to the ground.
In Maltese the sandarac is known as għargħar, a semitic name that indicates that this tree was already present when the when the islands were occupied by the Arabs.
Up to about thirty years ago it was thought that this tree grew only at Maqluba, near Qrendi, but a small grove was found near Mellieħa.
In the past this tree was said to have been much more common especially in the area around Birkirkara and around the village of Għargħur.
It is a tree adapted to the hot dry summers of the Mediterranean. It can survive burning and can re-grow from cut or burnt stumps. Trees that have been burnt repeatedly over a long period of time form burrs known as lupias.
Burrs are stress-induced deformations usually in the form of rounded outgrowths of the trunk. Burrs are usually highly prized and sought by furniture makers and artists. To obtain the lupias the sandarac trees are destroyed and this has led to large parts of Morocco being deforested.
The tree produces a resin which is used to make a varnish which was used to protect paintings and antiques. For many centuries sandarac was the only varnish in use until it was replaced by cheaper varnishes.
In parts of North Africa the resin is traditionally used to make a liquor and as a remedy in cases of difficult childbirth as well as to reduce cramps. Sandarac is burned to treat colds or taken internally to treat roundworms and tapeworms.
The wood of the sandarac is known as citron. In Romans times it was often used in house building and is still used in cabinetry and to make decorative objects.
This article was published in The Times on 21.12.11.