Saturday, February 23, 2013

Legendary fennel

Fennel is a hardy perennial plant native to the Mediterranean that is now found growing in many parts of the world especially in countries that were colonised by the Romans. It prefers dry areas near the seacoast and riverbanks. In Malta it is very common especially along country roads and paths.

The flowers are small and yellow and grow at the tip of a stalk in the form of an umbrella-shaped floret. The plant often grows up to two and a half metres high.

The word fennel came from the Middle English word fenel which is derived from the Old English word fenol which came from Latin feniculum, the diminutive of fenum meaning ‘hay’.
The plant was recorded as one of the nine species that could be invoked in the 10th century Old English Nine Herbs Charm.

In Ancient Greek fennel was called marathon and is said to be the origin of the place name Marathon, the site of the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. The marathon race, comes from the legend of a Greek soldier who ran all the way from Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated in this battle. He ran the distance of 26 miles without stopping but collapsed of exhaustion immediately after delivering the message. In Greek mythology, Prometheus is said to have used the stalk of a fennel plant to steal fire from the Gods although in my opinion the Greeks were referring to another species, the giant fennel, that has a thicker stalk which is more likely to burn and smoulder. The giant fennel is known as the plant from which the Bacchanalian wands of the god Dionysus and his followers were made.

In Maltese fennel is known as busbies, a word of Semitic origin while in Italian it is known as finocchio. The Florence fennel has thick leaf bases and is cultivated as a vegetable to be eaten raw especially with salads.

This article was published in The Times on 22 July 2009.

Weasel world's smallest carnivourous mammal

The first time I saw a weasel, nearly thirty years ago, I was at Wied il-Luq in Buskett. I was flat on my stomach taking pictures of a small beetle when I got the impression that I was being watched. 

I looked up and saw a weasel standing on its hind legs a few metres away from me. It was concentrating on a patch of ivy which grew on the nearby wall. As I looked up it looked at me and ran into the ivy. I assumed that seeing me so close by was such a shock that I would not see it again but within a couple of seconds it reappeared holding a large rat in its mouth. 

In less time than it takes to take a deep breath it had crossed the open space and still holding the rat in its mouth disappeared in the thick bramble that grew in the deeper part of the valley.

This encounter was so brief that I did not have enough time to take a picture of this rare and elusive mammal. I have seen other weasels since then but it was never for more than a few seconds.  

The weasel, known in Maltese as ballottra, is the smallest carnivorous mammal in the world. It has a slender body which enables it to enter burrows and narrow crevices to follow rats, mice and other small animals on which it preys.

The species found in Malta which is also known as the least weasel is indigenous throughout Europe and most parts of North Africa, Asia and North America. It is missing from Ireland, Iceland and eastern Canada. It has also been introduced to other parts of the world including New Zealand and Australia. In the Maltese archipelago it is found only on the island of Malta where it can be found in most rural habitats hunting during the day as well as during the night.

Its fur is reddish-brown with a white belly. In northern countries in wintertime may become pure white and is so well camouflaged that it is next to impossible to see it in the snow.
Weasels are solitary animals and are never seen in pairs. Males and females fight even when they have to get together to mate. In Malta the young are born in April and May and when food is plentiful they can raise another brood in July or August. 

This article was published in The Times on 15 July 2009.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Gaping flower

The chasmanthe is an alien species of flowering plant from South Africa. It was presumably first brought to Malta as a garden flower but now grows wild, usually in the vicinity of urban areas and close to farmhouses where it was probably planted.
The name chasmanthe, which is actually the name of the genus of plants, is derived from two Greek words – chasme and anthos, which mean gaping and flower respectively. This species has other names, including the cobra lily, but I have not found a Maltese name for it.
In their native lands, chasmanthe flowers are pollinated by sunbirds which are very small birds that live mostly in Africa and India.
Like hummingbirds, they are specialised in feeding on nectar. They have a fast flight and some species can hover in front of flowers to reach the nectar.
The chasmanthe belongs to the iris family, that is made up of more than 2,000 species, many of which are cultivated as garden plants. More than half of them are native to southern Africa. The family is named after Iris, the Greek goddess who carried messages from Olympus to earth along a rainbow.

The species found on our islands are crocuses, gladioli and romuleas. Fourteen of these species are indigenous to the Maltese islands; of these one is endemic and two sub-endemic.
In Malta, 21 species have been recorded growing in the countryside although several more can be found in gardens.
The endemic species is known as Maltese romulea (żagħfran tal-blat ta’ Malta). Sub-endemic species, on the other hand, are found locally and in a restricted area outside Malta.
The Sicilian iris (fjurdulis Sqalli) is found in Malta as well as in west Sicily, Lampedusa and Pantelleria while the yellow-throated crocus (żagħfran selvaġġ) is restricted to Malta and parts of Italy.

This article was published in The Times on 21 February 2013.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Unsightly earthworms

If we had to judge the value of an animal solely by its aesthetic appeal, then the earthworm would not get anywhere near the top of the list. It has no bright colours and has the shape of a pinkish segmented tube. Furthermore, it spends most of its life underground and is hardly ever seen. However, earthworms have an important role in maintaining and enhancing soil fertility and they can be considered a farmer’s best friend.
Earthworms do not have lungs but exchange gases with their surroundings through their skin which must be kept moist at all times. Earthworms are invertebrates: they do not have a skeleton but they manage to maintain their shape by having fluid-filled chambers that function like a hydro-skeleton.
The tiny animal pulls down organic matter such as leaves under the soil surface and converts it to humus. The organic matter is broken down into smaller pieces, partly digested by means of intestinal secretions and ingested together with small pieces of soil.
After digestion, the material is excreted as casts which are high in minerals and can be easily taken up by plants.
The tunnels dug by earthworms bring air into the soil and provide channels through which water can drain.
In good healthy soil there could be up to a quarter of a million earthworms per acre. Numbers can be much lower in soils treated with artificial fertilisers and pesticides.
Earthworms are an important link in many food chains as they are preyed upon by many species of birds including robins, starlings and gulls.
Several species of earthworms are found in the Maltese islands, where they are known as ħniex tal-ħamrija.

This article was published in The Times on 14 February 2013.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The ant-lion - a small delicate insect

The ant-lion is a small delicate insect that looks like a brown damselfly. The adult ant-lion has a weak flight and is most commonly found in vegetation in sandy areas especially along the west coast. Ant-lions have a worldwide distribution being particularly common in arid sandy habitats. There are about 2,000 species. About 12 species occur in the Maltese islands.

In most European and Mediterranean countries its name in some way or the other describes these insects as predators of ants. In Maltese they are known as qerd in-nemel. This is because the larvae feed mainly on small insects especially ants. The adults of some species feed on nectar and small pollen while others are predators of small arthropods.

The larva of the ant-lion digs a pit in the sand by crawling backward, using its abdomen as a plough to shovel up the soil. It uses one front leg to place heaps of particles on its head, which it then flicks away from the area in which it is digging. It continues working in this way as it moves sideways and inwards towards the centre creating a deep pit with steep sloping sides. When the pit is complete it settles down at the bottom buried in the sand with only its jaws protruding. 

Any insect venturing over the edge of the pit will find it difficult to maintain a hold on the loose sand and slips to the bottom where it will find the larva waiting with open jaws. If it tries to run up the steep sides the larva will shower it with loose sand to make it fall back to the bottom of the pit. There is no need for the larva to hit the escaping prey with sand. By removing sand from th ebottom of the pit, the larvae causes the sides to collapse bring the prey down with it.  

The ant-lion larva can capture and subdue a variety of insects and even small spiders. The projections in the jaws are hollow and it uses them to suck out the contents of its victims. It then flicks the dry carcass out of of the pit and arranges the pit by throwing out collapsed material from the centre to the sides making them as steep as possible in readiness for the next victim. 

This article was published in The Times on 1 July 2009

The animated oat

The animated oat is an annual grass that can grow over 1 metre in height. It is very common in disturbed ground flowering from March to May. It is commonly known as ħafur but technically it is referred to as ħafur kbir to distinguish it from ħafur żgħir. This is a very similar species with smaller spikelet known in English as the bearded oat. 

It is also very common in the Maltese islands. It grows in similar habitats but has a longer flowering period as it is in flower from February to June. Both species can be found throughout the Mediterranean.

Other species of oats are found growing wild in the Maltese countryside but these are so similar that they are difficult to distinguish.

The oats are a genus of 10 to 15 species of grasses native to Europe, Asia and northwest Africa. One species is widely cultivated elsewhere and several have become naturalised in many parts of the world. All oats have edible seeds, though they are small and hard to harvest in most species. 

One species known as the common oat is cultivated for its seeds. While oats are suitable for human consumption as oatmeal and rolled oats which are used in some kinds of porridge, they are more commonly used as livestock feed. Oats make up a large part of the diet of horses and are often fed to cattle as well.
“Sowing wild oats” is a phrase used since at least the 16th century. Apparently, a similar expression was used in Roman times. 

The origin of the expression is the fact that wild oats are a major weed in oat farming. Among European cereal grains, oats are hardest to tell apart from their weed relatives, which look almost alike but yield little grain. In former times these could be kept at bay only by checking one’s oat plants one by one and hand-weeding the wild ones when they were in flower but if the plant had already produced seeds this would be a totally futile exercise. 

The phrase eventually was used with reference to the sexual liaisons of an unmarried young man, possibly resulting in pregnancy because of the invigorating properties of the oat grain.

This article was published in The Times on 3 June 2009.

The Maltese freshwater crab – an endangered species

I have written several articles here and elsewhere about the Maltese freshwater crab. 

In my writings I always emphasised that this is an endangered species and needs to be protected if it is not to become extinct. Extinction of this species would mean that this species would be lost forever, as the race found in Malta is not found outside the Maltese islands.

The fresh water crab was first mentioned way back in 1647. In 1990 it was described as an endemic subspecies and renamed as Potamon fluviatile lanfrancoi

It lives in areas with a permanent supply of fresh water and as this habitat is limited to a few localities it is a very rare species. In the past it used to occur in a number of areas from where it has become extinct because its habitat has been lost. It used to be found at Marsa but disappeared from the area in the 1850s when the marshes were drained. Another population, which was used to be found at Binġemma probably, went the same way and the few populations that are left here and there are in decline and could very well disappear as well.

The freshwater crab has been legally protected since 1993.  Under present legislation it is listed in Schedules III (Animal and plant species of national interest whose conservation requires the designation of special areas of conservation) and VI (Animal and plant species of national interest in need of strict protection) of the Flora, Fauna and Natural Habitats Protection Regulations.

One of the last, and probably largest populations of fresh water crab is found at Baħrija where they live in tunnels along the permanent watercourse that passes through the valley. The valley and the surrounding countryside as is to be expected is very rich in biodiversity. I often visit the area and always manage to find interesting species to photograph and observe. Unfortunately the area is now threatened because of the building of a villa within metres of the watercourse in which the freshwater crab lives. The permit for the building of this villa should never have been issued and should be revoked. We have lost enough habitats and species and nobody should not allow such an important area to be egoistically destroyed.

This artcle was published in The Times on 24 June 2009. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Leguminous plants

The common birdsfoot trefoil, known in Maltese as qrempuċ tal-mogħoż, is an annual plant that produces small, yellow flowers in winter and spring.
It belongs to the leguminous family in which we also find important members such as beans, peas and sulla (silla), as well as a large number of indigenous and alien wild plants.
Leguminous plants are found on all continents, except on Antarctica, and in most terrestrial habitats. The family consists of about 19,400 species; nearly 110 of these have been recorded in the Maltese islands.
Legumes have been utilised by man since the earliest times. Common and broad beans have been cultivated for nearly 8,000 years in Europe, Asia and in the Americas.
The flowers of the typical legume develop into a simple fruit known as a legume (miżwet). When mature, the dry legume splits open along a line of weakness to release the seeds. Beans and pea pods are typical legumes.
Leguminous plants are also well known for being able to utilise atmospheric nitrogen. They do this by forming a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria which live in structures known as root nodules.
The bacteria convert the nitrogen into compounds which can be utilised by the plants. The availability of a good source of nitrogen compounds allows leguminous plants to synthesise amino acids which are the building blocks of proteins, making leguminous plants a good source of proteins.
Furthermore, when leguminous plants die and decompose, their nitrogen compounds enrich the soil and become important components of crop rotation systems.
In crop rotation, farmers alternate non-legumes with leguminous plants. A typical rotation in Malta would be a crop of potatoes, followed by onions and then sulla.
Crop rotation was widely practised in the past but nowadays farmers prefer to use synthetic fertilisers which sometimes cause more harm than good.

This article was published in The Times on 6 February 2013.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The ladybird - beneficial to agriculture

Ladybirds are familiar insects, easily recognised by adults and young children thanks to their typical shape and bright colours and because from an early age these children learn about them creatures through books, rhymes and stories that abound in Malta and many parts of the world.  

There are more than 5,200 species of ladybird worldwide. The name originated from one particular species, the seven spot ladybird which is the most familiar species in Malta and in the rest of Europe. Wherever it occurs this particular species has many names many of which are tied to Christian beliefs and mythology. 

One author lists 329 common names for the ladybird from 55 countries of which over 80 refer to the Virgin Mary and more than 50 are dedicated to God. The red colour base is said to represent Our Lady’s cloak and the 7 black spots her 7 joys and 7 sorrows. In German the ladybird is commonly known as Marienkäfer (Marybeetle). In Italy it is sometimes known as “gallinelle del Signore" or "gallinelle della Madonna". Contrarily one Italian name is 'galineta del diavolo' or 'the devils chicken'. Other names include the Swedish Himelska nyckla or 'the keys of heaven' and the Cherokee 'great beloved woman'.

In Malta the ladybird also has several names many of which are known by only a handful of people and are at risk of being lost and forget unless they are collected and recorded. The most common name is nannakola. Kola might be referring to San Nikola (Saint Nicolas). A quick look at just one local dictionary turns up several other names and variations including barbażjola, barbaxiħa, sebbellika, bellika, sebella, żebbellika, żabbetta, żzabbettina, żejba and żeppellina.

In Malta as elsewhere the ladybird is also popular in childrens’ rhymes. Maltese children learn from an early age the stanza starting with Nannakola tmur l-iskola

In the English speaking word it is

Ladybird ladybird fly away home,
Your house is on fire and your children all gone.
All except one whose name is Anne
Who hid herself under the frying pan.

Teaching children about these insects through rhymes was important as it taught them from an early age to love these insects which are beneficial to agriculture as they helped to control agricultural pests.

I am presently compiling information about ladybirds and other insects including names and tradition and would like to receive more information about the subject. 

Anybody having such information is kindly asked to contact me an email at


Saturday, February 2, 2013

Stalkers: Jumping spiders

Jumping spiders are active hunters often seen during the day walking up and down walls in houses as well as in the countryside. They hunt flies and mosquitoes by stalking them slowly and finally jumping on them. 

At least two species are found in the Maltese islands although one should not be surprised if more are discovered as spiders have not been studied completely in the Malta.

The most common species is known simply as the jumping spider but is also called Adanson's House Jumper. In Maltese it is known as brimba qabbeżija tad-djar. It is found in warmer climates around the world, including Japan, Taiwan and Australia but has been introduced in many parts o the world including colder areas where it is often found in greenhouses. A male jumping spider can grow up to 8 mm.

Another species known as Schembri’s jumping spider, brimba qabbeżija ta’ Schembri, is much smaller growing to a maximum of 4mm. It is found on dry ground among stones and is endemic to Malta and Sicily.

The jumping spider family contains over 5,000 species, making it the largest family of spiders with about 13% of all species. They are found in a variety of habitats especially in tropical rain forests but they can also be found in temperate forests, scrubland and on mountains. 

One specimen is claimed to have been collected near the very top of Mount Everest. Jumping spiders have good vision, which they need for hunting. They have four pairs of eyes, some of which are sensitive to a wide range of rays including ultraviolet rays.

Jumping spiders have a well developed system of internal hydraulic which makes it possible for them to extend their limbs by changing the pressure of their blood within them. Thanks to this system they can make spectacular jumps without the need of having large muscular legs like the grasshopper. 

A jumping spider can jump 20 to 60 or even 75 to 89 times the length of its body. When a jumping spider is moving from place to place, and especially just before it jumps, it tethers a filament of silk to whatever it is standing on. Should it fall for one reason or another, it climbs back up the silk tether.

Jumping spiders are very curious creatures. When approached instead of moving away they turn to face the possible danger. If approached too closely they might jump backwards and they might also attempt to defend themselves by raising their forelimbs.

Reproduction involves an interesting courtship display consisting of complex movements of the forelimbs in which the male’s hairs and colours are shown off to the female. It is thought that in at least one species the female reflects ultraviolet rays before mating. It has also been recently discovered that many jumping spiders have a good auditory system and that males make sounds like buzzes and drum rolls. 

This article was published in The Times on 10 June 2009.

St John’s-wort

St John’s-wort usually refers to the common St John’s wort, a plant found throughout most of Europe as well as in North Africa and western Asia

It has been recorded in Malta but was considered as a very rare species. The name also refers to the members of the genus of plants known as Hypercium. Three other species of St John’s-wort are found in the Maltese islands.

The Egyptian St. John’s-wort, known in Maltese as fexfiex tal-irdum, is frequently met with on cliff-top garigues and cliff sides. It is in flower from winter to early summer. 

The crisped St. John’s-wort, fexfiex tar-raba’ in Maltese, is common in cultivated ground and other disturbed habitats while the pubescent St. John’s-wort (fexfiex sufi) which flowers in spring and early summer is found in rocky steppe and garigue.

The genus name Hypericum is derived from the Greek words hyper (above) and eikon (picture), in reference to the traditional use of the plant to ward off evil, by hanging plants over a religious icon in the house during St John's day.

In Malta the three more common species of Hypercium had several medicinal uses including as a cure for tapeworm, and to relieve inflammations and the effects of sunburn. When squeezed the plant releases a red liquid which in the past was believed to cure blood-related conditions.

The common St John's-wort is today most widely known as an herbal treatment for depression. Clinical trials have shown that in some cases this is an effective cure and in fact in some countries, such as Germany, it is commonly prescribed for mild depression, especially in children, adolescents. It is also used in its extract form in ear oils/drops for ear infections, ear pain, or tinnitus.

In large doses, St John's-wort is poisonous to grazing livestock including cattle, sheep, and goats.

Hypercium was used medicinally in ancient Greece. Native Americans used it internally as an abortificant and externally as an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. The flowers and stem have also been used to produce red and yellow dyes. 

This article was published in The Times on 8 July 2009.