Thursday, November 1, 2012

Plant that looks like a lamb’s tail

The small white flowers grow on a columnar stalk that looks like a lamb’s tail hence its Maltese name, denb il-ħaruf abjad.

The flowers are so small that to appreciate the beauty of this flower you should move in close and if possible use a magnifying glass to study the details of the individual flowers.

The white mignonette grows in Europe, Asia and North Africa but has also been introduced in the Americas and Australia. It is now also cultivated as a garden plant. 

Garden varieties can grow up to a metre high but the wild plants found in the Maltese islands hardly ever grow half as tall. 

This species grows mainly in disturbed habitats and is commonly found throughout the Maltese islands. It can be seen flowering between December and May.

Mignonettes were grown in Victorian England in pots and placed on windowsills to counteract the noxious smell of the city air with their scent. In Roman times the plants were used to produce a sedative and to treat bruises. An oil, extracted from the flowers, is used in perfumery.

The yellow mignonette, a species closely related to the white was also of use. A yellow dye called weld was produced from its roots as far back as 3,000 years ago. Dye production stopped at the turn of the 20th century when cheaper synthetic dyes became available.

The yellow mignonette is also found in the Maltese countryside but unlike its relative it is very rare. In Maltese it is known as denb il-ħaruf isfar. If you are lucky you can find this plant in flower in April and May.

Both species are rich in nectar and pollen and attract large numbers of butterflies and bees. 

This article was published in The Times on 28.02.2012

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