Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Crocuses from sands of time

Next time you go for a walk in the countryside especially in areas with rocky garigue, look out for the brightly coloured sand crocuses which are starting to flower at this time of the year. 

Sand crocuses are scientifically known as the romulea a name derived from Romulus, one of the legendary founders of Rome, because whoever gave them their name found large numbers of these plants growing around the Italian city.

The romuleas, of which there are about 80 species, are found in Europe, North Africa and South Africa. 

They form part of the iris family which is characterised by having linear or sword-like leaves. 

The leaves of the sand crocuses are in fact look like green threads.

Until a few decades ago two species of romuleas were recorded in the Maltese islands with one species being divided into four varieties. 

These varieties have now been designated as species and we now have five romuleas present in the Maltese islands although to the untrained eye the five species are so alike that it seems next to impossible to tell apart.

Some species of romulea are cultivated as garden plants although they are not as popular as the larger crocuses.

The violet romulea (żagħfran tal-blat biċ-ċentru roża) is very rare and one is unlikely to meet it unless looking specifically for it. Another species, the Maltese romulea, (żagħfran tal-blat ta’ Malta) is endemic to the Maltese islands, although it is very rare and might already be extinct.

Some romuleas are very similar to crocuses with which they share the same habitat. Although they are both members of the iris family they belong to separate groups and have evolved separately. 

Their similarity is a result of the fact they the two groups of plants share the same ecological niche have evolved in the same way to deal with the same environmental conditions a process known as convergent evolution. 

This article was published in The Times on 01/02/2012

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