Orchids of the Maltese Islands

February 25, 2019

Stephen Mifsud (2018) Orchids of the Maltese Islands: a descriptive guide. Malta: Green House. ISBN 978-99957-1-367-6

Monday, 25th February, 2019

Alfred E. Baldacchino

Maltese flora is mostly unappreciated, overlooked, senselessly butchered, and exploited. Considering the smallness of the Maltese islands, compared to the United Kingdom, Malta has more different species per square kilometer than the UK has. Such is the richness of our country.

It is left to individuals or environmental NGOs to take the lead in scientific studies, fieldwork, publications whether scientific, popular or educational, and public awareness. Official entities are more interested in paper talks, drafting guidelines without any legal powers, or publishing regulations, hardly, if ever enforced.

One of the natural fields in this biodiversity richness with which the Maltese Islands have been gifted is Orchidaceae – the family of orchids. Scientific data on indigenous orchids was scattered. Such data was mainly available to botanists dedicated to scientific research. This data was not easily available in a popular way to many educators. As with many other wild species of flora and fauna, popular interest lacking scientific background, usually leads to a negative way of appreciating such a delicate, priceless richness – through collection.

Without any doubt, a breath of fresh air in this field, is the new 232-page book, Orchids of the Maltese Islands – a descriptive guide, by Stephen Mifsud. The initial efforts came from Green House  Malta and BINCO. The former is a non-profit eNGO with its major aims to conserve through ongoing monitoring schemes of threatened flora and fauna with the help of citizen scientists.

Biodiversity Inventory for Conservation (BINCO) is an international non-profit organisation with a passion for nature and a desire to help preserve the remaining natural resources on this planet. The Ministry for the Environment, Sustainable Development and Climate Change; EcoGozo within the Ministry for Gozo; the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) co-sponsored the publication.

Stephen Mifsud, though relatively young, is definitely on the way to becoming one of the leading botanist on these islands. With years of dedication, field work, an eye for detail, a vast experience in macro-photography, especially in the study of wild flora, he could not have been a better choice to author this book. The past difficulties he found in his studies without doubt gave him more drive and experience for such work.

This first comprehensive book on the subject, introduces the biology of orchids, systematic and classification.

The book goes in great detail about orchids in general and deeper on indigenous orchids. The main part of the book is taken up by orchid species profiles – 36 indigenous species of orchids, grouped in 7 genera. It goes in details with regards to recorded species. The present names of the species together with any related synonyms, including the etymology of the botanical name. The habitat, frequency, and local and global distribution, detailed morphological description, species variability, closely related species, taxonomic notes and problems, history accounts in Malta, observed pollinators and a useful quick identification note are also discussed. The status of each species is given: very rare, rare, scarce, frequent, locally frequent in restricted areas, or common.

The book is lavishly illustrated with 300 professional scientific photos the majority of which are taken by the author himself. Line drawing are also included where it was found necessary to illustrate details of parts of the species. A distribution map for every local species is also included. The distribution  maps are compiled from data available from the mid-19th century to date of publication. Wisely enough, the rare species are not accompanied  by a distribution map, to protect them  from avid orchid collectors, both locals and foreigners.

A classification table of each species, its description, and morphological, availability, reference to closely related species, flowering period are also given. These are also accompanied by a quick identification help.

It also explains that there are 20 species which are either misidentified or extinct because of the above given reasons.

A reference list shows the extensive research conducted. Two appendices further contribute to the great wealth of the book.

Appendix I relates to orchids occurring in Sicily.

Appendix II contains a number of tables with valuable data such as:

  • history of orchid taxa recorded in the Malta – a references table;
  • a table on selected taxa recorded from the Maltese Islands and their current treatment;
  • a taxonomic guide of the Maltese orchids – lumping and splitting classifications;
  • a botanical, English and Maltese names of orchids – one sorted by species name; one sorted by Maltese name; and one sorted by English name;
  • flowering periods of orchids in the Maltese islands;
  • orchids flowering per month;
  • known pollinators of orchids found in the Maltese islands;
  • and orchid protection provided by ERA.

These are followed by a glossary, index, and short notes on Green House, BINCO, and on the author.

Another great contribution of this book is the standardisation of Maltese names for wild natural species, in this case orchids, given in Appendix II.

This comprehensive reference on indigenous orchids is not only a much needed updated scientific platform for locals and other foreign botanists, but also for orchid enthusiasts, as well as for educators, planners, as well as those passionate about Maltese natural history. One also hopes that such a publication will catch the attention of politicians to help them realise the biodiversity richness of our Country, and the destruction for which they are responsible by their decisions, taken without any thought for the safeguarding of our national and international heritage.

It is also another tool to help create a stronger public awareness which can be a deciding factor in the harnessing and controlling the continuous destruction of natural areas resulting in the ever bleaker outlook, not only for dwindling orchid population, but also for all Maltese biodiversity.