Some trees of Malta

Monday, November 19, 2018

Sandro Lanfranco

 A new and updated book about Maltese trees could not have come at a more opportune moment.

Trees have been in the news almost every week and almost always for the wrong reasons. Over-development, upgrading of the road network and accident prevention, to name a few, have all been used as justification for the removal or  mutilation of old, mature trees in recent months. This general regard for trees as expendable ornaments of landscape reminds us we are still a very long way from appreciating them as an integral part of our environment, including our built environment.

This is why Alfred Baldacchino’s new book, Sigar Maltin – taghrif, tnissil, ħarsien, għajdut (Klabb Kotba Maltin), is so timely. It is an educational tool that, one hopes, will go some way towards raising awareness of what we have and of what we stand to lose.

It is not a comprehensive account of Malta’s trees, instead, the author chose 12 species and devoted a chapter to each, telling a story about every one tree, describing its natural history, horticulture, pests and diseases, cultural importance, historical background and conservation status.

The author includes an introductory chapter describing the Maltese environment and the biology of trees, a list of relevant legislation concerning trees, an extensive bibliography and a list of species with Maltese and English vernacular names accompanying the scientific  binomials. There is also a glossary defining both technical and unfamiliar non-technical terms.

The book is well-organised, written in refreshingly fluent Maltese and draws upon the author’s vast experience in this field. Descriptions of species are comprehensive and accompanied by a generous number of functional photographs. The author does not just describe the leaves, flowers and bark of each tree but also provides photos of seeds, fruits and other distinctive features, depending on the species. This is a very welcome addition as it is a feature missing from many  books  about Malta’s plant life.

The scientific aspect of Baldacchino’s writing is correct and updated, with only one or two very minor quibbles.

Appreciation of this book also revolves around an understanding of two key choices made by the author: species and language.

The species included are all native but are by no means all common. This is certainly a positive point as it introduces readers to trees that may have never seen.

Moreover, the author’s definition of a ‘tree’ is also quite inclusive and incorporates plants such as Spanish Broom and Lentisk that are probably better described as shrubs.

There is also no trace of alien trees in Baldacchino’s account. He is very much a ‘purist’ in this regard and these latecomer usurpers have no place in his book, in spite of their important ecological and cultural roles.

The author’s definition  of Maltin (Maltese) extends to species that have been recorded prior to 1500 and any species not present before that point are considered ‘alien’. Baldacchino, nonetheless, recognises that several trees, now considered native, were probably also introduced by humans in antiquity.

Baldacchino chooses the path less-travelled  and  writes  in Maltese. His reasons are twofold.

Firstly, while completely aware he is excluding much of his potential audience, he is reaching out to those who may be more comfortable reading in Maltese than in English, an unquantified cohort neglected by most local authors in this field.

Secondly, by writing in Maltese he is reinforcing and reviving a subset of vocabulary that is not in general use. The Maltese language has its own lexicon for trees but this is often supplanted by more general terms or by inclusion from other languages. Through his choice, the author is not only teaching about trees but is also teaching language.

The book will be an indispensable addition to the libraries of readers on natural history and melitensia in general. It will be appreciated by general readers as well as by students of the Maltese environment and those of the Maltese language.

One looks forward to seeing a version written in English for the benefit of a wider readership.

Sandro Lanfranco – Senior lecturer in biology at the University of Malta.


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