Sunday, August 25, 2013

The sea daffodil

Sea daffodil Pancratium maritimum
The sea daffodil is one of the most beautiful of Malta’s indigenous flowers. It grows in the most unexpected of places and flowers during the hottest and driest months of the year.

It is very well adapted to live in sand, close to the sea. It manages to do so by having a large bulb which stores enough food and water to help it survive in difficult conditions. The bulb is buried at least half a metre underground. This ensures that the bulb is not uncovered even when strong wind is blowing the sand around. As it grows in loose sand it is not difficult for the shoots to push their way through half a metre of sand.

The sea daffodil often grows in dense clumps. It has several common names including sea lily and sand lily. In Maltese it also has several names indicating its popularity. It is known as ġilju tar-ramel, narċis tar-ramel and pankrazju.

The latter name is used mostly by people familiar with its scientific name, Pancratium maritimum. Pancratium is a Greek word meaning strength. It probably refers to the ability of this plant to live in a difficult environment although it could also be a reference to the tonic properties of the plant. Maritimum is an obvious reference to its ability to live close to the sea.

A fertilised flower produces a large seed capsule which, when mature breaks open releasing 10 to 40 irregularly-shaped black seeds that look like charcoal. The seeds are very light and can float. They probably disperse by the action of waves and wind.

The sea daffodil has an interesting mode of fertilisation. The flowers of the sea daffodil open in the late afternoon and evening and close the following afternoon. They are large and pure white which makes them easier to see at night. They also have a strong scent. All this indicates that they are pollinated by night-flying moths.

Studies carried out a few years ago have shown that the pollinators are the large hawk moths particularly the convolvulus hawk moth, known in Maltese as baħrija tal-leblieb.

Another interesting investigation showed that the moths visited the flowers when there was little or no wind. Flowers that opened on windy days remained unpollinated and did not produce seeds.

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 3 July 2013

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