Monday, October 19, 2015

The fagonia

The fagonia is a Mediterranean flowering plant species found in most countries from Spain to Lebanon along both the northern and southern shores of the sea.

It grows in dry, stony and rocky habitats, garigue, often on calcareous soils. In Malta it is rare as it is restricted to the clay slopes along the north western coast of the island of Malta. It is not found on Gozo.

In Maltese it is known as fagonja. This name is derived directly from its scientific name Fagonia cretica from which even its English name is derived. This indicates that this species probably did not have a folk name because the people were not familiar with it because of its rarity.

 Its bright magenta flowers appear in spring usually between March and May but this year it is already in flower possibly because of the warm days we have been having this winter.

The fagonia belongs to the caltrop family. The name was given because of the shape of the fruit of members of species belonging to this family. A caltrop is an antipersonnel weapon that had two or more sharp nails positioned in a way that when the weapon is thrown on the ground one of the nails always points up. Caltrops were used to stop or slow the advance of horses, elephants and humans. Nowadays caltrops are used to stop vehicles with pneumatic tyres.

The only other member of the caltrop family in the Maltese islands is the Maltese cross which is known in Maltese as għatba. This is a scarce plant of dry open habitats which got its name because its fruit resembles a Maltese cross and because of this in the past it was erroneously said to grow only in Fort St Angelo although it probably did grow inside the fort as it is still found mostly in disturbed habitats in the harbour area.

As with other members of the caltrop family the Maltese cross has five-spiked fruit which when stepped upon by an animal it becomes embedded in its foot, an ingenious way of dispersal which can be painful to those animals helping in its dispersal. 

This article was published in the Times of Malta on 15 January 2015

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