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.