Discovering wild flowers at Dingli Cliffs

August 29, 2013
logo                                                                                       Dingli Local Council –  Spring 2013

Discovering wild flowers at Dingli Cliffs

Alfred E. Baldacchino

widnet-il-bahar--blogg

Dingli Cliffs rise from the depths of the sea to a height of 253 meters above sea level. Their majestic height, facing North Africa, forms the highest point in the Maltese Islands.

Although exposed to the winds and sea spray, Dingli Cliffs offer a unique natural environment which can also be regarded as one of the richest in the Maltese islands. It embraces sea cliffs, garigue, and maquis, with adjacent woodland at Buskett on the inland side. A walk along these majestic cliffs brings one face to face with the beauty and wonders of nature, whatever the season of the year. A very brief look will give an idea of the richness of the place and the natural wealth there is to discover.

MALTESE ROCK-CENTAURY – Widnet il-Baħar

Without doubt, a must see at Dingli Cliffs is the rare, evergreen Maltese Rock-Centaury. This wild plant is an endemic species, that is, it is found growing wild only in the Maltese islands and nowhere else in the world. Even in Malta, the plant’s distribution is limited to the southern coastal cliffs of the islands. It flowers between May and July. It was declared Malta’s national plant in 1971. The Maltese Rock-Centaury is threatened by the destruction of its natural habitat mainly through quarrying.

It is listed by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) as a critically endangered species and is also listed as an Annex II species in the European Union Habitats Directive. It is also protected by Maltese legislation.

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AZURE STONECROP – Beżżulet il-Baqra

The exposed garigue rocks can lead one to think that they are just bare rocks. A closer look at such habitat, especially where some water accumulates during the rainy season, reveals the spread of a low lying succulent plant, the Azure Stonecrop that only grows 6 to 7 mm in height. With the advent of summer, the leaves of the Azure Stonecrop turn red, with small white flowers having sky blue tips. These can be seen from March to May. The Azure Stonecrop is abundant in the Maltese Islands.

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FENNEL – Bużbież

Fennel is a very common plant that can be found along waysides, disturbed ground and garigue. It can reach heights up to 250 cm and having thin segmented leaves. It flowers from May to October bearing yellow bunched flowers in the form of an umbrella, mainly in summer. The leaves are very aromatic. Our forefathers, and today some still do, used fennel seeds as a seasoning to oven-baked potatoes and to flavour meat. It was also believed to help against digestive problems and nausea. It is said that its leaves placed among clothes in drawers deter insects. Overseas, liqueurs and perfume essence are also made from fennel. The flowers of the wild fennel attract a number of insects, the most noticeable being the Swallowtail Butterfly. This endemic subspecies lays its eggs on the tender shoots of the fennel. The green-coloured caterpillar decorated with orange and white dots is also a sight to behold. Eventually it pupates and develops into a beautiful yellow-and-black butterfly, the largest in the Maltese Islands with a wing span of up to 65 ­to 88 mm.

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CAPER – Kappara

The Caper is a common wild plant which can also be found along Dingli Cliffs. It is a sprawling greyish shrub with thick rounded leaves. The 5 to 7 cm white flowers each have four white petals and a number of purple stamens. They also have a delicate odour and are in bloom from April to September. The caper is salt-tolerant and can grow on sea-cliffs. It is also widely distributed through the Mediterranean. A local tradition is collecting and pickling the flower buds in brine and vinegar to be added to Maltese salads and sauces. It has a sharp piquant flavour affecting taste or smell with a sharp acid sensation. It adds a peculiar aroma and saltiness to food such as fish, meat, salads, pasta sauce, and pizza. It contributes to classic Mediterranean flavours which also include olives, anchovies, artichokes, and garden rocket. It is said that the caper plant can be used as a poultice – the soft moist mass of the plant, often heated, is spread on cloth over the skin to treat aching, inflamed or painful parts of the body, especially inflammations of joints such as those of the feet and hands. Leaves are also crushed and put on painful areas of hip gout. Furthermore, a decoction – an extraction obtained by boiling leaves or roots – is used on skin rashes.

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TREE SPURGE – Tengħud tas-Siġra

The Tree Spurge is a frequent dense shrub which grows on valley slopes, on garigue, and also adapts to difficult sites. This shrub can reach a height of 2 m. It is a deciduous plant and loses all its leaves in summer. After the first rains, the green-bluish leaves begin to appear. It is covered in yellow flowers from December to May. With the approach of summer it turns from reddish-orange to rosy-bronze. Its dried leaves fall off completely in summer, as it waits for the first autumn rains. The Tree Spurge has a poisonous milky sap which is also a skin irritant, and should be handled with caution. Since ancient times, the toxic white and sticky sap has been used to treat skin outgrowths like tumours and warts, and is today being studied for such treatments. The name ‘spurge’ is derived from the Middle English/Old French (to purge/espurge) because of the use of the plant’s sap as a purgative. In folkloristic medicine the tree spurge is used to treat various ailments and as an insect repellant.

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MALTESE SPURGE- Tengħud tax-xagħri

Another interesting relative of the Tree Spurge frequently found growing on arid, rocky places in the garigue is the Maltese endemic Spurge. This species, which only grows in the Maltese Islands, is also found at Dingli Cliffs and is one of the protected wild flora. It only grows to a height of 10 to 30 cm. From November up till June it is covered in bright yellow flowers.

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Swallowtail Butterfly on Mediterranean Thyme

Mediterranean Thyme – Sagħtar

Walking along Dingli Cliffs, one cannot miss the purplish-pink patches of the Mediterranean Thyme’s crowded flowers spreading on the garigue between May and August. This common indigenous aromatic shrub grows from 20 to 50 cm in height, and has a sweet aromatic smell when touched. The purplish-pink scented flowers attract many an insect such as butterflies. The honey bee is also an important visitor to wild thyme flowers gathering nectar for the production of the famous Maltese honey. In the past the plant used to be collected for firewood and to decorate Christmas cribs.

In popular medicine, thyme was used as a stomach treatment, to stimulate appetite, against bad breathe, to help against coughs, hay fever, throat, and bronchial asthma, and to ease muscle tension. It was also used  as a disinfectant, against infections and skin disease; as an astringent to threat flu and even cancer. Its medicinal properties were sometimes also used for rheumatism and arthritis, and mixed with vinegar for headaches. The dried ground-powdered leaves and stems were also used for their antibacterial activity. In aromatherapy, which uses essential oils extracted from various parts of the plant, it is used for perfumes, cosmetics, and other pharmaceutical products. It is also used to make liqueurs. This is one of Malta’s protected plants. Unfortunately, although the Mediterranean Thyme is still very common, it is under increasing pressure, especially from hard stone quarries.

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SILVER RAGWORT – Kromb il-Baħar Isfar

The Silver Ragwort is a dwarf shrub growing to about 100 cm high. It is indigenous to the Mediterranean and a perennial, that is, it grows and blooms during spring and summer, then dries up in autumn and winter, and springs back to life again from its root stock. It is tolerant to extreme conditions, and is a water conservation species that also thrives in environments with a very high concentration of salt. The leaves are lance-shaped, as is the stem, and are covered with long, white matt hair. It grows in rock fissures, walls and cracks, and is very common near the sea, flowering in spring and summer.

The flower head is a compact flower, an inflorescence, that is, a group or cluster of yellow flowers arranged on a stem that is composed of a main branch or an arrangement of branches. The yellow flower is 4 cm in diameter. It is also used in cultivation and landscaping, though unfortunately not in the Maltese Islands.

The Silver Ragwort is also used in herbal medicine, mostly for eye treatments, such as cataracts and for treating inflammation of the membrane that lines the inner surface of the eyelid and the exposed surface of the eyeball.

CONCLUSION

This is just a glimpse of a few of the common wild flowers one can discover while walking along Dingli Cliffs. The floral richness of Dingli Cliffs, and the different natural habitats, makes Dingli Cliffs so important that they are regarded as a special habitat of EU Community Interest. Dingli Cliffs are a Special Area of Conservation declared under the Habitats Directive, thus forming part of the European Union’s Natura 2000 Network.

Besides adorning and filling the natural environment with so many colours, wild flowers can also embellish our urban environment if they are used in urban landscaping, or planted in front- and back-gardens. There are many other species of wild flowers, though unfortunately these are not appreciated but are neglected and ignored. This information is intended to help create greater awareness of the natural wild flora of the Maltese Islands.

Scientific names2

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Ix-Xagħri

December 20, 2010

It-Tnejn, 20 ta’ Diċembru, 2010

Ix-Xagħri

Alfred  E. Baldacchino

Ix-xagħri huwa wieħed mill-ambjenti naturali li nsibu fil-gżejjer Maltin.  Dan huwa wesgħa ta’ blat tal-qawwi b’numru ta’ ħofor baxxi mimlijin b’ħamrija ħamra.

Dan l-ambjent huwa ddominat minn pjanti baxxi li jgħolew bejn 50 sa 100 cm. Huma kollha adattati għal dan it-tip ta’ ambjent naturali miftuh għall-irjiħat, u għall-qilla tax-xemx fis-sajf. Dawn jistgħu jaħżnu l-ilma taħt l-art biex isibuh matul il-ġranet sħan tas-sajf.  Hekk insibu pjanti li ħafna minnhom għandhom zkuk inniggżu u ħafna drabi jkunu jfuħu wkoll. Il-pjanti jikbru mferrxa fi rqajja ta’ ħamrija qalb il-blat. Ix-xagħri huwa l-ambjent naturali bl-akbar firxa fil-gżejjer Maltin, u huwa sinjur fl-ispeċi ta’ pjanti li jħaddan. Madwar nofs il-pjanti slavaġġ li jikbru fil-gżejjer Maltin, jinstabu jikbru fix-xagħri. Dawn ukoll joffru kenn u ikel għal numru ta’ fawna oħra.

Sfortunatament għad hawn minn jaħseb li dan ix-xagħri huwa blat għeri mingħajr l-ebda użu. Din il-mentalità tinstab f’kull qasam tas-soċjetà, kemm dik kummerċjali, dik reliġjuza kif ukoll anki dik politika.

Minħabba din il-mentalità, li wieħed jinnota b’sodisfazzjon li bil-mod il-mod qed tinbidel  l-aktar qalb il-ġenerazzjoni żgħażugħa, ħafna  minn dan l-ambjent huwa żdingat u  traskurat.  Hekk ġieli naraw borġ wara borġ  ta’ terrapien u skart ieħor mormi f’dan ix –  xagħri u mhux rari li wieħed jara dan it-tip  ta’ ambjent jiġi mgħotti bil-ħamrija biex  jinbidel f’għelieqi. Lanqas hija ħaġa rari li fuq  dan it-tip ta’ ambjent naraw xi bini tiela.

Tant huwa mportanti dan it-tip ta’ ambjent li  l-Unjoni Ewropea tqisu bħala tip ta’ ambjent  naturali speċjali, u kull membru msieħeb li  għandu minn dan it-tip ta’ ambjent irid  jiddikjara numru ta’ inħawi minnu biex ikunu  mħarsa bil-liġi u meqjusa bħala Firxa Speċjali ta’ Konservazzjoni (Special Area of Conservation) li flimkien ma’ nħawi oħra ddikjarati minn kull membru msieħeb fil-UE, jifformaw ix-xibka Natura 2000.

Malta wkoll iddikjarat inħawi tax-xagħri bħala SAC. Fosthom insibu l-Kemmuna, li hija kważi kollha xagħri, Ta’ Ċenċ u l-Qortin tal-Magun f’Għawdex, kif ukoll Pembroke. Fost l-ispeċi ta’ flora u ta’ fawna li nsibu fix-xagħri, mingħajr dubju l-aktar magħruf huwa s-sagħtar li fis-sajf jiksi dan l-ambjent b’tapit roża-ħamrani. Hemm ħafna u ħafna speċi oħra li nsibu fix-xagħri.  Fost il-flora nsibu t-Tengħud tax-Xagħri li huwa endemiku u għalhekk jinsab jikber fil-gżejjer Maltin biss, il-Berwieq, u numru ta’ Orkidej.  Fost il-fawna nsibu l-gremxul, il-bebbux, numru kbir ta’ insetti, kif ukoll għasafar fosthom il-Bilbla li żżurna bejn l-aħħar tar-rebbiegħa u l-bidu tas-sajf biex tbejjet fix-xagħri.

Hekk naraw kemm ix-xagħri huwa sinjur u kif huwa ambjent b’valur kbir ekoloġiku, ekonomiku, edukattiv, xjentifiku, estetiku u soċjali.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com