Thursday, June 7, 2012

Fruit of the zesty kind

Another Citrus Festival was organised by the President of Malta last Sunday to raise funds for charity an event which also helps to highlight the importance of orange production in the Maltese islands.

Orange trees are not indigenous and do not grow wild in the Maltese countryside but in the past the orange was an important crop and many large groves could be found in the central parts of Malta and parts of Gozo.

Oranges have been cultivated in the Maltese islands for a very long time. Many varieties of oranges can nowadays be found in the Maltese islands but the best known is a local variety which produces ‘Maltese oranges’.

In the 19th century saplings of Maltese orange trees were exported in large numbers and nowadays Maltese oranges can be found growing in several Mediterranean countries as well as in other parts of the world including the United States of America where they are known by other names.

The orange tree, like other citrus fruit trees, is native to Southeast Asia and was probably planted around the Mediterranean by the Arabs during the ninth and tenth centuries. Christopher Columbus is said to have taken orange seeds with him to the New World and now Florida has become one of the main orange producers in the world.

Several other citrus fruits including a large number of varieties are cultivated in the Maltese islands but except for lemon trees they do not grow wild. The lemon is a hybrid tree that originated in Asia. It probably entered Europe through southern Italy sometime during the First Century AD.

It is widely cultivated in the Maltese islands and sometimes one finds solitary trees growing in the countryside.

These trees were probably planted by farmers but managed to survive without further help after the fields in which it was planted were abandoned.

The lemon has a variety of culinary and non-culinary uses. It is widely used in traditional medicine and whole books have been written about it. Lemon is a strong antiseptic and antibacterial and is a rich source of vitamin C and antioxidants.

This article was published in The Times on 25.01.12

When time stands still

Nature photography is a most rewarding experience practiced by different persons for different reasons but in all cases what probably draws one to this activity is a love of nature and the pleasure one gets from being outdoors.

Naturalists take pictures of plants and animals to keep a record of species observed at a particular time or locality.

They also take pictures to illustrate articles and lectures. Professional nature photographers shoot pictures for commercial purposes.

These pictures are used to in advertising as well as to illustrate articles in printed magazines and in websites.

For me nature photography is a way of sharing my love for nature with others but it also gives me great pleasure and has taught me to be observant and continuously aware of my surroundings.

When I am in the countryside I become tuned to small changes in light that others might miss.

With the right light a flower, a drop of water on a leaf, an insect or small animal can all become the subject of an impressive image.

Motion can be frozen and a photograph can show things that are too fast to be seen by the naked eye.

Macro lenses can show details that are too small for a casual observer while a long lens can bring things closer.

Nature photography teaches you patience.

Sometimes you have to wait for a long time for the right light or the right movement but while waiting you observe details and behaviour.

It often happens that while walking you notice a single flower but after a few moments looking at it you start seeing others around it in spots where a few seconds before you had not seen any.

While taking nature pictures time stands still. Minutes and hours can merge together to come apart again with the click of the camera shutter. When seeking the subject for the next picture one becomes a part of nature with all senses fully tuned to the surroundings.

Nature photography can be a form of meditation that can give you inner peace and calm and lead to self fulfilment like few other things can. Nature never ceases to amaze me and when I think that I have seen it all I find another angle or point of view that allows me to capture a new experience of nature.

All this gives me pure joy every time I go out in nature.

This article was published in The Times on 20.01.12

Plant with thick leaves in the shape of a heart

Ice plants belong to a large family of plants most of which are indigenous to southern Africa.

A few species can be found in Australia and the Central Pacific.

A number of species have been cultivated in Maltese gardens for many years and because of their ability to regenerate easily from pieces of broken stem have become naturalised in the Maltese countryside especially in the vicinity of gardens. .

The most common species are probably the heartleaf ice plant and the sword-leaved ice plant.

These two species can grow profusely and cover large areas of ground. They both produce large numbers of small red or pink flowers but it is very difficult to tell the two species apart.

They differ mainly in the shape of their leaves, one has heart-shaped and the other slightly pointed leaves but the leaves vary and sometimes it can be very difficult to tell the two species apart.

I have never met with a Maltese name for these two plants but they are so common in gardens and urban areas that I am sure that they do have a Maltese name.

Another well known species of ice plant is better known as the Hottentot fig.

In Maltese it is known as xuxet San Ġwann or perhaps more commonly as il-pjanta tas-swaba.

This species has thick succulent leaves and large pink flowers that can attract large numbers of bees and other insects in search of nectar and pollen.

In parts of the world with a climate similar to that of southern Africa notably parts of Australia, California and the Mediterranean this species has invaded large areas and has displaced indigenous species to the detriment of the areas’ biodiversity.

This has happened along parts of the Mediterranean coast where it now completely covers large tracts of land. Although these plants can be removed mechanically one must pay particular attention not to allow pieces of the plant in the soil as these can easily regenerate.

This article was published in The Times on 11.01.12

Bright Red and Christmassy

Poinsettias grow as small trees in Maltese countryside

The spurge family is made up of about 2,000 species of flowering plants which produce a milk-like liquid which exudes from the plant whenever it is damaged. 

About 20 species are found in the Maltese islands although not all are indigenous. The best known species is the poinsettia. 

In Maltese it is called punsejetta although many refer to it as the Christmas flower. 

The poinsettia is native to Central America and was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Minister to Mexico who was also an amateur botanist. Poinsett found the plant during one of his visits to Mexico and sent samples to his country.

 In the Maltese islands poinsettias can be found growing as small trees in the countryside especially in fields close to farmhouses.

The eye-catching, large, red ‘flower’ is not a flower but a bract of leaves with small flowers in the middle. To turn red the leaves require at least twelve hours of darkness for at least five days in a row hence the ‘flowering’ during the Christmas period. 

As a result of this the plant has become a very popular Christmas decoration and present. The cultivation of poinsettias has become a large industry. Large scale cultivation started about a hundred years ago in the United States and has now spread to many other parts of the world including Europe.

Many wrongly believe that the poinsettia is very poisonous. Such a belief is understandable because the latex of other spurges can be toxic. The toxicity ranges from slightly irritating to fatal. 

Six to eight seeds of the castor oil tree (riġnu), another member of the spurge family, are enough to kill an adult. The poison found tin the seeds, ricin, in 1978 was used by the Bulgarian secret police in London to kill Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov. 

The caterpillars of spurge hawkmoths which feed on the leaves of spurges are brightly coloured because their body assimilates the poisons from the leaves they feed on which provides them with protection from predators. 

This article was published in The Times on 04.01.12