The “English” Plant of Malta…..

6771950425_710fe50395_b pixlr signedThe “English” Plant of Malta…..

There is only one Mediterranean.  Or is there?  In fact there are a number of other areas on the planet where a Mediterranean type climate prevails.  Think of the Cape area in South Africa, California in the USA, Chile in Latin America and Queensland in Australia: all regions famous for their wines.  New World competitors for viticulture which owes its origins in the Mediterranean.

Now take yourself back to the mid nineteenth century, the 1800s that is.  Malta has been a British colony for around five decades and the British have also established themselves in southern Africa in their Cape Colony, the capital of which is Cape Town which they have wrested from its original Dutch founders.  The Cape Colony with its unique and diverse flora and fauna, which although different from that prevailing in this part of the world is perfectly suited due to the similarity of climate.

Enter an English Lady whose name history does not record.  She obtains a sample of a small, nondescript flowering species from the Cape appropriately called the Cape Sorrel, scientific name Oxalis pes caprae and passes it on to the Botanical Garden in Floriana, Malta.  The new plant likes its new home: everything from the soil to the humidity to the temperature and the sunlight is so close to what it is used to!300314510_d35806cfb4_b pixlr signedIt actually likes it so much that it manages to escape from the confines of the Botanic Garden and within a few years takes over the Maltese countryside.  To the extent that in many areas it becomes the dominant species, which it continues to be to this very day.  The plant’s stem is a very rich source of oxalic acid, and eventually becomes the source of a new habit amongst young and old alike for chewing for the strong sour experience!  The Maltese call it by two names: the romantic Haxixa Ngliza or English Plant and the more practical Qarsu from the word qares which means sour.3177729596_c2fa0b9cc8_b pixlr signedThe years pass and the “English” Plant’s conquest of Malta is complete.  However it is obviously not content with its achievement.  Malta is far too small for its ambitions!  The plant takes advantage of the extensive exports of world-class Maltese citrus rootstock to all parts of the Mediterranean and its bulbs spread with the soil accompanying the rootstock.  In a matter of years it conquers the entire Mediterranean basin and slowly creeps to colonise areas as far north as southern England.  So it may be claimed that all the “English” Plants or Cape Sorrels in Europe and the Mediterranean today are descended from the original plants introduced to Malta by the English Lady and which eventually escaped from confinement to colonise an entire continent.5306475581_b491ffce79_b pixlr signedOne other curiosity.  The original Cape Sorrel species in South Africa consists of both male and female flowers which are assisted in their sexual reproduction by bees and other insects to produce seeds for propagation.  The ones brought to Malta were all of the same single sex, which means that propagation was only possible through the production of bulbs through asexual reproduction.  To this day, all the Cape Sorrels in Europe and North Africa pertain to the single gender originally imported into Malta and only propagate through bulbs rather than seeds!

Easy to ignore, reasonable to take for granted.  But do stop and take a look at the golden fields which this flower produces in January and February and marvel about how a few plants brought over for their curiosity value from the other side of the planet not only survived but spread from Malta to become such a familiar feature of the Mediterranean landscape as we know it today.

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3 thoughts on “The “English” Plant of Malta…..

  1. Thank you fr this Leslie. My father, a keen amateur gardener told us that Haxixa Ngliza came from South Africa and now you’ve filled in more details.

  2. Thank you for this article on the Cape Sorrel. I have not been to Malta when they are in bloom, but the photos are beautiful and shows another side of the Maltese Landscape.

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