Thursday, June 6, 2013

A rose that loves the sun

Mediterranean sun-rose Fumana arabica
The Mediterranean sun-rose is an indigenous yellow-flowered plant that is at its best in April and early May. In Maltese it is known as ċistu isfar.

It grows in garigue, the rocky arid habitat common in some parts of Malta. It shares this habitat with three other indigenous closely related members of the Cistus family.

The cistuses are also known as rock roses. The family consists of about twenty species many of which are found in the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea as well as in Portugal and the Canary Islands. Most species are yellow, pink or white.
The rock roses are very well adapted to survive in poor soils and dry conditions where many other species would not survive for long. They are also able to survive in areas which are susceptible to fires and they can take over a burnt site before other species of plants can make a foothold.
Nowadays cistuses can be found in gardens well outside their natural range and garden enthusiasts have created several varieties and cultivars.

The thyme-leaved sun-rose (ċistu żgħir), another indigenous species, has similar but smaller flowers and narrow leaves that resemble those of thyme.

Two other two related species are the narrow-leaved rockrose, known in Maltese as ċistu abjad, and the hoary rockrose known as ċistu roża. These species are larger with large beautiful flowers. They are not common and in fact in the Maltese islands the narrow leaved rockrose is restricted to two sites; one in Malta and another in Gozo.

The leaves of some species of rockroses, including the hoary rockrose, produce an aromatic substance which was used in medicine and which is still used in the production of perfumes. Up to the 18th Century in Crete an instrument shaped like a rake but with leather thongs instead of teeth was passed over the cistus plants to collect  the resin. In ancient times the gum was collected from the beards and thighs of goats and sheep that had been grazing among the cistus plants. 

The common blue

Common blue Polyommatus icarus 
The common blue is a small butterfly. In some areas it can be very common. It can be seen from late winter to early autumn but it is most common in early summer.

Males and females are different. The male has blue upper wings with a bluish base. In females the upper wings are brown with a tinge of blue. The underside of males is grey with some blue at the base while in females it is browner. Both sexes have a number of diagnostic spots on their underwing.

The larva of the common blue feeds on several species of leguminous plants especially trefoils and clovers.

It is found in most of Europe, parts of Asia, North Africa and in the Canary Islands. It was recently introduced in eastern Canada.

The common blue is a member of the lycaenid family. In this family we find over 5,000 species. In Malta seven species are found. All are small with either bluish or brownish upper parts. The common blue is the commonest species.

In Maltese it is known as farfett tal-anġlu.

The lycaenid family is the second-largest butterfly family with about forty percent of all butterflies many of which are threatened with extinction. Sometimes these butterflies are known simply as blues.

Another common species is the Lang’s short-tailed blue, known in Maltese as ikħal tad-denb qasir. This species lays its eggs on the plumbago, a beautiful garden plant, and, is often seen resting in its flowers.

The holly blue, known in Maltese as ikħal fiddieni, is common in areas where its food-plants, the ivy and bramble are common. A good place to see this species is at Wied il-Luq in Buskett.

The long-tailed blue (ikħal tad-denb twil) is not common. Most of the time it can be seen flying low above thyme bushes but visits bean plants to lay eggs.

This article was published in The Times on 15 May 2013

Crystals in the sun

Crystal plant Mesembryanthemum crystallinum
The crystal plant is a rare indigenous plant that grows along the coast in sandy or gravely habitats. It is native to Europe, Africa and western Asia.

This species is also known as the ice plant. It got these names because the entire plant is covered in crystalline bladders which shine in the sun.

It is also known as the mesembryanthemum. This name is derived from its scientific name, but it is so difficult to remember and pronounce that I think that it is hardly ever used. This name was given to it because the flowers open only on sunny days close to midday.

In Maltese it is known as kristallina kbira.

The seeds germinate in winter and the flowers appear in spring and early summer. After the flowering season the plant dies, although, in the right conditions it can survive for another year or more.

The leaves are thick and succulent which helps the plant survive in a salty environment. It forms circular patches of a diameter of about one metre and hardly ever rises more than ten centimetres above the ground.

The thick leaves are edible, as are the seeds which are so small that they are eaten only in emergencies. The plant is also used medicinally. It is used as an anti-inflammatory and is particularly effective for the treatment of the membranes of the lungs and genitourinary system.  

The leaves can be crushed and used instead of soap.

The crystal plant is very rare in the Maltese islands and wild specimens should not be used medicinally or for any other purpose as this could endanger the existence of this species in the Maltese islands.

This attractive plant is sometimes cultivated. The seeds are easily cultivated and it would be a good idea if it was used as an ornamental plant in public areas close to the sea instead of non-indigenous species.

A more common indigenous species is the lesser crystal plant which grows in the same habitat as the crystal plant. Both species accumulate salt in their leaves. When the plants die this salt leaches into the soil and increases the salinity of the surrounding substrate making it for the seeds of less salt-tolerant species to germinate and grow. 

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 22 May 2013