Malta has never been known for its greenery. Any visitor flying to the Islands from mid May to early October, will see a below a rocky landscape shimmering white in the heat. But Malta in spring, that’s a different matter.
It’s thought that even in prehistory, at the time of the last temple builders, the islands were largely afforested. When the Knights of St John arrived in Malta in 1530, they reported that the islands were ‘…merely a rock of soft sandstone…scarcely covered with more than three or four feet of earth…no running water, nor even wells….wood was so scarce it was sold by the pound…’. In all, they found Malta ‘…extremely disagreeable – indeed almost insupportable – particularly in summer.’
But, despite seeing Malta as temporary home, they ended up here for 260 years! However bereft of wood, soil and water or hot the islands were, the Knights had to adapt and make the best of it. And that’s pretty much the attitude of the plants that make the Maltese Islands their home.
On the short 300 meter coastline walk between Ghajn Tuffieha and Golden Bays – where the photo above was shot – I counted 28 different types of plant pushing valiantly up through the garrigue. March to May are the best months to enjoy Malta’s all too brief floral display as spring rushes at breakneck speed into summer. When I see their parched stems in early June, I feel it’s a miracle these plants survive. They’ve many more months to go without water, yet will burst into life again come autumn, which is like a second spring.
Now, in our true spring, the plants are magnificent, and stand for survival of this rock, despite the odds stacked against it. I’ve yet to find a great pocket guide to the fauna and flora of Malta, along the lines of the ‘Observer Book of ….’ series that my parents had in the ’60s and which used to accompany us on holidays to far-flung parts of the British countryside. When I do, I’ll update this post with its title.
In the meantime, here are just some of the common, colourful species to spot this time of year, and make your walks in Malta’s countryside more informed.
The English weed (Oxalis cernua): in profusion now, this lemon yellow plant was said to have been introduced to Malta in 1806 by an Englishwoman. It’s pretty, but prolific and considered a weed.
Borage (Borrago officinalis): a bright blue flower on hairy stems and leaves., it grows in verges and rough garrigue.
Crown daisy (Chrysanthemum coronarium): the epitomy of spring. It makes a real statement in golden yellow and standing up to 3 ft tall.
Anemone (A. coronaria): small is beautiful. Find it in sheltered valleys.
Crimson Corn Flag (Gladiolus segetum): pinkish-purple, it’s another rough ground grower, but despite being common, it’s a real spring statement. Squeeze the flower, as my son does, and they look like gaping mouths!
Red Snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus): another tall plant that is hard to miss for its colour and display.
Scarlet Corn Poppy (Papaver rhoeas): almost as common here as in Tuscany, this bright spark loves crop fields.
Purple Clover (Hedysarium coronarium): not a native, but grown as fodder. It carpets fields and, along with the English Weed, is a colour you see from the air.
Later on, towards May, you’ll find the caper in flower in crevices. It has enormous white-pink feathery flowers with a heady scent. Spot it in the bastions of Mdina. Its buds get hoovered off for pickling, so it’s about the only place you’ll see it flower! Another to look for in May, but on the clifftops, is the native Maltese thyme, flowering a deep purple. Don’t pick it though, as it’s protected! Instead, brush it with a hand and enjoy the strong scent. It has no domestic garden rival!
Photo: Prickly Pears – Alex Grech.
Photo main: snail & lily (not a wild plant, we know! – Liz Ayling