Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The sea squill – the harbinger of autumn

Sea squill, Ghansar (Uriginea maritima)

The sun has been shining relentlessly on the Maltese countryside for the past five or six months and by now the countryside is parched dry. There is very little green vegetation and very few flower. 

The sea squill is one of the few species of plants that flowers at this time of the year. It is a very common plant, which is impossible to miss by anybody visiting the countryside at this time of the year.

The squill has an unusual flowering pattern.  The tall flowers appear in late summer before the autumn rains when the plant has no leaves. They sprout from a large bulb directly out of the dry soil. The tall fleshy leaves do not appear before the arrival of the autumn rain and dry completely in spring. By flowering in summer the sea squill manages to avoid competition from other flowering plants and attract large numbers of bees to its flowers.

The sea squill has several common names including sea onion and. red squill. Red squill probably refers to a variety of the plant that has red-tinted flowers instead of the more common white. The bulbs grow very close to the surface of the soil and can be quite large. 

They sometimes weigh more than two kilograms. In areas of high soil erosion, they are sometimes uncovered completely and they end up laying on the surface of the soil until they eventually die.

The squill belongs to the lily family in which we also find the asphodels, tulips, garlic and the beautiful star of Bethlehem. The sea squill is known in Maltese as għansar. Another species of squill, known in Maltese as għansar tal-ħarifa, flowers in early autumn. This species also flowers before the leaves appear but it is much smaller and cannot be mistaken for the earlier flowering species.

It has been used for medicinal purposes since ancient times. In small doses it stimulates the heart and is a diuretic but in larger doses it is an emetic and poisonous. The squill’s medicinal properties have been known since Egyptian times. Their use has been recorded as far back as 1500 BC, while in Greece both Pythagoras and Hippocrates, used it in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. The juice of the bulb causes blister when they come in contact with the skin. It has been used as a rodenticide and is being studied for its insecticide properties.

In Israel the sea squill has gained an almost iconic status and is popularly known as the ‘harbinger of autumn’ due to the fact that the flowers pop out all over the country at the end of the dry summer, some time before the first rains. During the New Year celebrations, the Greeks hang the bulbs of the sea squill in the house as part of a fertility rite. 

This article was published in The Times on 9 September 2009.

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