The mushroomless Fungus Rock of Gozo
Just off the sheer cliffs of Western Gozo lies a rock, some 60 metres high. It guards a small deep lagoon and is obviously the remnant of what was once a sea cave whose roof collapsed, isolating it forever from the mainland.
This rock is Fungus Rock and you may wonder about its association with mushrooms given its bleak topography and very sparse garigue habitat which one hardly associates with the damp and humidity necessary for mushrooms to thrive.
Indeed there are no mushrooms on Fungus Rock. In fact there ain’t much of anything although from the micro-perspective this small rock not only teems with life but harbours one of the rarest plants in the region: a small parasitic tuber which ekes its miserable existence by sucking nutrients from the other plants in its vicinity. A plant which owing to its bulbous shape was formerly confused with a fungus, giving its small island home a name which survives to this day.
For until a few decades ago, it was universally assumed that the “Malta Fungus”, as the plant was called, only grew on this tiny rock. It has subsequently been discovered in a host of other places all the way from the Canary Islands to Afghanistan and is today known by the less romantic name of Cynomorium coccineum. So consider it all: a rare plant, phallic in shape and blood red in colour. Add a good dose of imagination and it becomes a cure for all sorts of erectile dysfunctions and blood-related diseases including internal hemorrhages, anemia and dysentery amongst others.
Enter the Knights of Malta, those most enterprising of branding experts who discovered the intrinsic value of this rare plant and conjured the esoteric name Fungus melitensis. The Knights attached a lot of importance to this highly-prized and rare plant and used to harvest the small quantities which grew on the tiny islet to send as gifts to European royalty. The plant was so precious in fact, that the Knights actually took the trouble to level off the sides of the islet to make climbing from sea level to the top impossible, and until the nineteenth century the only access was through a rickety cable-car arrangement from the high cliffs on the mainland. Access was guarded and poachers faced stiff punishment if caught.
Today the islet rests in peace and quiet, and still bears the name of its most famous product. A nature reserve of scientific importance to which access is severely restricted. Seen by tens of thousands of tourists visiting the nearby Inland Sea and Azure Window on Gozo and lying there in the majestic glory of the deep blue sea with the impressive cliffs as a backdrop.
And proud of the fact that irrespective of size, even a tiny fragment of rock has a historical claim to fame from a time when its humble produce was the gift of kings.