The little plant that inspired architecture

DSC_3662 pixlr signed The little plant that inspired architecture

At the moment many roadsides, especially those on the sides of valleys or enjoying some shade are full of a common plant called Acanthus mollis – the Maltese hannewija.  An imposing plant which grows to up to 80 centimetres in height and is very visible owing to its upright floral stem and its tendency to grow in groups.  Standing to attention like alert soldiers. A deep green when their surroundings are generally drying as late spring makes way to summer.

DSC_3656 pixlr signedBut besides its natural beauty the humble hannewija has a much bigger claim to fame in the Mediterranean which is its natural homeland.  For it forms the inspiration behind one of the three columns of classical Graeco-Roman architecture.  Anyone with some knowledge of such architecture will be aware that our classical ancestors designed three types of columns: the plain Doric, the scroll-inspired Ionic and the ornate Corinthian columns.  The Corinthian, which is by far the most ornate of the three columns is based on a leaf-motif which was inspired by the acanthus plant’s leaves.  These columns were very common in ancient Graeco-Roman architecture and regained popularity in the neo-classical architectural style that emerged in the late eighteenth century and was obviously inspired by the great structures of Mediterranean antiquity.DSC_3682 pixlr signedAccording to legend, the association of the hannewija’s leaves to the Corinthian column goes back to around 500 B.C.  An Athenian bronze-sculptor named Callimachus chanced upon a child’s grave upon which there was a basket which was filled with the dead child’s toys.  The basket was covered by a large terracotta tile to protect the toys from the elements.  With the passage of time, an acanthus plant which had taken root beneath the toy basket had grown around its edges so that its leaves eventually curled up around it until they touched the base of the terracotta tile.  Thus was born the idea behind the Corinthian column which is an artistic rendering of a basket wrapped in acanthus leaves.DSC_3702 pixlr signedHere in Malta we have numerous examples of neo-classical renderings of the Corinthian column. Walking into Valletta this morning I witnessed two examples: the recently restored columns of the 19th century Royal Opera House and the colonnade supporting the portals of the nineteenth century Palazzo Ferreria opposite the Opera House in Republic Street.

So there you have it: a common, nondescript plant which not only beautifies our countryside during the late spring, but which, in association with a touching story from twenty five centuries ago, found itself immortalised in one of architecture’s classic designs.

Look out for it in its natural and stone versions and appreciate both as I do.DSC_3700 pixlr signed

The smell of the sea

L1310840_tonemapped pixlr signed lores The smell of the sea

A friend of mine recently commented on a photo of rough seas during a north-easterly gale which I had uploaded on my facebook page.  He is Maltese and currently based somewhere in the internal depths of continental Europe: very, very far away from the sea.  His comment on my photo, which I am including above with this story, was that he could smell the sea from 2,200 kilometres away!  I immediately understood what he was saying and empathized with his feelings.

The smell of the sea, particularly the salty Mediterranean Sea.  Never quite so distinct as during a storm.  When the spray rushes non-stop past you, tangible enough to be felt but so fine as not to actually feel damp.  The bracing aroma of salt and seaweed.  Toxically saline and not potable, yet paradoxically refreshing and life-giving.  Exhilarating and pleasant.  Particularly when combined with the other senses.  The sound of the rolling waves crashing against the solid rocks, the awe-inspiring sight of monumental splashes where a wave disintegrates against the unyielding coast.  The salty taste of the sea in one’s mouth and the subsequent wet feeling when the accumulated spray soaks your clothes and hair.

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The refreshing smell which blows away the cobwebs, unblocks the nasal cavities and rushes straight down to the lungs, leaving a trail in its wake, like in the adverts!  And available for free rather than encapsulated in plastic phials.

Not the kind of hydrotherapy that one goes to thermal sources and spas to benefit from, but just as healthy and invigorating.  With the savage beauty of unrestrained nature thrown in for free!

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As Yellow as a Crown Daisy

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In Malta spring comes early.  At a time of the year when the countryside in most European countries is still bare, grey and dormant, the Maltese countryside thrives under the magical combination of rainfall, sunshine and generally mild temperatures.  The result: a multi-hued carpet of green that appears in late autumn and explodes into a riot of wild flowers from January until May.  Then, in complete contrast to nature on the European continent, the Maltese summer comes, and with it a period of dormant nature which shrivels up and goes underground in reaction to the merciless sun and the total absence of rainfall.

Malta is blessed with hundreds of wild, flowering plant species which is a bit of a paradox considering its small surface area, its relative isolation from the mainland and its high population density.  The number of wild plants is truly amazing and compares quite well to numbers found in much larger countries such as the UK and Italy.  Owing to our insularity, some of these plants are also endemic, which means that they are found nowhere else on Earth.  Other species are not necessarily endemic but are limited in spread to a small neighbourhood near Malta such as Sicily and the smaller Italian islands located to our south-west such as Lampedusa and Linosa – a relic perhaps to a time of much lower sea levels when all these islands formed part of a larger, and now mostly submerged, landmass.

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As is to be expected, some species thrive far better than others.  The rarer ones tend to be limited to threatened or scarce habitats such as wetlands and sand dunes, of which there are only a handful in the Maltese islands.  Others, such as the French narcissus, have been reduced to an endangered species through indiscriminate picking for selling.  In spite of this, however, one finds the success stories, consisting of species which continue to thrive in spite of all the adversity thrown their way: species which not only cling to their preferred natural environments but also adapt and spread even in the most disturbed and damaged of habitats.  One such species is the crown daisy, the Maltese Lellux.

The crown daisy is undoubtedly one of Malta’s commonest flowering plants, embellishing the countryside with yellow flowers between winter and early summer.  It vies for attention and competes for space with another common species, the cape sorrel (https://leslievella.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/the-english-plant-of-malta/), another yellow flowered species. But contrary to the cape sorrel, which is an invasive species that originated in South Africa and was introduced to Malta during British rule in the nineteenth century, the crown daisy is a definite local, being found all over the Mediterranean.

300321188_557f863484_bWhile the cape sorrel starts flowering as early as December and generally lasts until April, the crown daisy makes a slightly later appearance although it lasts until the very late spring, with some hardy patches even surviving into the early weeks of summer.  In common with the cape sorrel, it is distinguishable through its tendency to carpet entire areas, such as is usual during this time of the year.  Although very common, it does tend to be quite selective in its growing requirements, preferring fields and soil-rich disturbed ground whilst avoiding areas rich in clay or the harsher garigue environment.

The crown daisy comes from the sunflower family from the group collectively known as chrysanthemums.  The word chrysanthemum is a composite of the two Greek words chrysos and anthemon which mean golden flower.  Its Maltese name, lellux or lelluxa seems to derive from the word tlellix which means to shimmer, possibly in view of the shimmering effect caused by the huge carpets of flowers rippling in the spring sunshine.  The plant’s Maltese name is however more than aptly used in the expression “isfar lellux” which literally translates into “as yellow as a crown daisy”, implying the plant’s traditional placing as the yellow flower of Malta, before the cape sorrel’s introduction.

The crown daisy flower features two main parts: the central circular part which packs in scores of yellow, tube-shaped disc-florets together with a ring of ten to fifteen yellow petals known as ray-florets.  Upon maturity each flower turns into a fruit containing hundreds of seeds.  Given that each plant produces many flowers, implies that it also produces thousands of seeds which simply fall to the ground where they are transported underground by insects.  These seeds germinate into new plants with the advent of the winter rains.

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Although the majority of crown daisy specimens produce totally yellow flowers there is a rarer variant of the plant which produces flowers with a yellow centre and discoloured petals where the upper one half or one third of the petals are white instead of yellow.  Although rarer than the yellow standard, the discoloured variety is common enough to notice once you look out for it.  It has been noted that the discoloured variety is easier to find in late spring than during the initial months of the plant’s annual appearance in Malta.

A countryside walk at this time of the year in an area with fields will undoubtedly feature huge swathes carpeted with lellux.  It is yet another common plant which we tend to ignore, pass by and take for granted, but which can provide a source of relaxed fascination if one merely stops to admire its simplistic beauty even for just a few minutes.  Its predominance indicates that the Maltese early spring is already at its peak whilst also indicating that the dry, hot months ahead are only eight to ten weeks away.

Go out and spend thirty minutes enjoying its splendour before this year’s cycle comes to an end and you have to wait until early next year for the spectacle to return!

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When the Greek Wind blows…..

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When the Greek Wind blows…..

Visualise the Mediterranean: the sea almost completely surrounded by land, the sea lying in between the lands of Europe, Africa and the Middle East.  The Middle Sea.

Now place yourself in its centre.  A point on two fine, perpendicular cross-hairs, intersecting somewhere south of Sicily, north of Libya.  The point?  Malta and its Islands.  In the middle of the Middle Sea.

To Malta’s north: Sicily, to its south: the massive Libyan coastline.  To its west: Linosa, Pantelleria and Tunisia, to its east: the island of Crete.  Now continue imagining the points of the compass.  To Malta’s north-west: the island of Sardinia and to its south-west: the islands of Lampedusa and Djerba.  The south-east also faces Libya while the north-east points directly to the Greek mainland.

The north-east.  Source of Malta’s most feared wind, the Grigal.  The word Grigal derived from the Maltese word for Greek: Grieg, meaning the Greek Wind.  A wind of undisputed ferocity which occasionally hits the archipelago with a force that scares even the most hardened of seafarers.  Turning the sea into a no-go area and whipping up a frenzy of churning waters which smash against the exposed coastline.

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Thankfully a relatively rare wind which is recorded during only 10% of the days of the year.  Generally mild but occasionally wild to the point of being frightening.  That’s when it gains the title of Grigallata, the mother of all Greek Winds!  The Grigallata blows with strong gale force, reaching Wind Force 9 to 10 at its worst: slightly short of hurricane force.  Stirring the sea into a maelstrom, a violently churning liquid mass: beautiful but scary at the same time.  Detaching boats from their moorings, uprooting trees, collapsing walls and flooding low lying areas as the incessant waves batter the land with a forceful impact.  Creating the sort of stormy seas for which we have the perfect Maltese description: bahar jibla’ l-art which translates into  “when the sea wants to swallow the land” such is the power of the waves’ assault on the coast.

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The grigal strikes the Maltese coast at its most vulnerable.  Given the island’s natural west-east tilt, with high western cliffs and a gently sloping, indented shoreline to the east, this vengeful wind strikes where the harbours, bays and coastal settlements lie.  Where the sea is relatively shallow, allowing the waves to accumulate into huge rollers before smashing against the rocky foreshore.  The only wind which penetrates into the inner reaches of Valletta’s two marvellous harbours: the reason why the Grand Harbour breakwater was deemed necessary a hundred years ago.

I have to confess a love-hate relationship with the grigal.  A love of the unfettered power of this wind in conjunction with the normally placid sea, an appreciation of the untamed force of nature in the face of man’s puny claim to be the master of all around him.  But also a hate borne out of its wantonly destructive powers: its capacity to uproot decades-old trees and topple stone buildings as if they were mere haystacks.

The precious Star of Bethlehem

DSC00558 pixlr signed loresThe precious Star of Bethlehem

It is now mid-April and the early-starting Maltese spring is in its final few weeks.  The year’s sparse rainfall has not helped either, and the countryside which has been so lush and green since October is starting to gear up for the Mediterranean equivalent of hibernation: estivation.  For in these southern latitudes it is not the frozen winter which forces nature underground but the hot, dry summer.

The steppe and garigue landscapes are already drying up and most flowering species have already gone into seed mode.  Maltese nature is about to start a long hot siesta which only the first fat raindrops of September/October will manage to re-awaken it from!

In spite of this general decline in the floral diversity of the Maltese landscape, a few species defy the odds by making a late appearance.  Such late appearances are of varying length from year to year depending on the particular year’s rainfall.  A good rainy season ensures that spring vegetation extends to late May, a drier one such as this year’s means that the landscape browns up much earlier.

One of my favourite species which sprouts just when most of the other flowers have already packed up and left is the Large Star of Bethlehem, Ornithogalum arabicum.  Its English name is obviously derived from the star-like shape of its flowers reminiscent of the Biblical Star followed by the Three Kings to Christ’s birthplace.  The Star of Bethlehem is a hardy plant which produces tall, slender stalks from which a bunch of five to twenty five flowers develops.

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Besides their obvious beauty the flowers of the Star of Bethlehem are also very fragrant making them very attractive not only to insects but also to people who unfortunately have the nasty habit of cutting them, thus contributing to their diminished presence in our countryside.

The scientific name of the species, ornithogalum, translates into the mysterious “bird’s milk”, as also evidenced by the plant’s primary Maltese name “halib it-tajr kbir“.  My research into the matter indicates that the term “bird’s milk” is of Graeco-Roman origin and was an expression to describe something that is wonderful beyond belief; something as unexpected as (nonexistent) bird’s milk!

As to its more vernacular and vulgar Maltese name: the plant is also known by the unflattering monicker “Harjet ic-Cawla” or “Jackdaw’s droppings”, possibly due to the similarity of the flower’s black central part to the bird’s excrement!  Star of Bethlehem, Bird’s Milk or Jackdaw’s Droppings: who’s not to enjoy the beautiful vagaries of language when describing this wonderful flower?!

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Sunrise over the lake

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Sunrise over the lake

A lake in bone dry Malta?  The only European country with no permanent surface water?

Yes.  In the place appropriately called l-Ghadira, the Lake.

What and where is this lake?  A patch of low land lying in the small valley between Mellieha Ridge and Marfa Ridge in the hinterland of the big sandy beach of Mellieha Bay.  Land which actually lies below sea level, allowing brackish water to seep through the rock and mix with fresh water percolating from the rocky layers of the surrounding ridges.  A true saline marshland, the Maltese bur salmastru.

The lake has been there since antiquity: a salt lake which dried up during the summer leaving salt deposits only to refill again with the winter rains.  A smaller version of the salt lakes of Limassol and Larnaka in Cyprus.   In centuries gone by, the salt was harvested by man.  Old maps indicate the area as saline vecchie: Italian for “old salt pans”.  The salt production in the area dates at least to Arab times given that the name of the village within whose confines the lake stands is Mellieha: which derives from the Arabic melh for salt.  Mellieha actually translates as the “salt producing place”.

Over the years the place silted up and the lake disappeared.  As a child I remember the lake bed being used as a car park by people going to the beach: a huge expanse of sand which looked like the endless Sahara to my untrained eyes!  Then the Malta Ornithological Society (now Birdlife Malta) took up the challenge to restore the Lake to its natural state.  With a little mechanical help and the healing powers of nature, it morphed into the natural oasis it has become today.  A birdwatcher’s paradise.  A rare wetland environment which we could only dream of a few decades back.

I took this photo a few years ago on an early February morning from 150 metres above in Qammieh.  The sun rising over the heights of Selmun, the calm waters of Mellieha Bay, and the lake with its plethora of tiny islets shimmering like a pot of molten gold. A truly magical moment over our only lake, the Ghadira at Mellieha Bay.

Still life at l-Ahrax

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Still life at l-Ahrax

The peaceful view from the cliffs at l-Ahrax tal-Mellieha in Malta’s northern extreme.  The calm blue expanse of the Mediterranean stretching as far as the horizon.  Beyond the horizon, due south, the Libyan coast, some 380 kilometres away.  So near and yet so far away.  Neighbours but a world apart.  Here at the tip of Europe, there at the tip of Africa.

Visibility very clear on the crisp winter day when the photo was taken.  Extending at least twenty five kilometres as evidenced by the Portomaso Tower and other landmarks visible on the horizon.

And the main subject in the foreground: the endemic Maltese salt tree, Darniella melitensis.  The Maltese xebb or sigra tal-irmied.  A scarce plant which is only to be found in the Maltese Islands.  Nowhere else on Earth.  Here and here alone.  A relic which predates the ice-ages.  The only example of the Darniella species to be found in Europe.

A “shy” plant, which prefers to grow in unreachable areas.  Such as the collapsed boulder screes beneath cliffs.  Hence its success in avoiding the depradations of man.    It is perfectly suited for this harsh environment.  A camel of a tree!  Thrives in poor soil, sparse water and harsh winds.  And a good dose of salty sea spray!

More of a shrub than a tree averaging 2.5 metres although larger specimens reaching 4.5 metres have also been observed.  Obviously strictly protected by national legislation.

A beautiful view which cannot be replicated anywhere else on the planet due to this unique plant.