The Cypress Tree: the Tree of the Dead

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The Cypress Tree: the Tree of the Dead

A fairly common tree in the Maltese urban and rural landscape is the Italian Cypress tree (Cupressus sempervirens).  The tree is a Mediterranean species from the pine family, although it was probably only introduced in Malta some time in the last 500 years dating it back to the advent of the Knights of St. John to our islands, making it an archaeophyte.

Although it is a fairly recently introduced species, it has managed to establish itself quite well in the wild where it has become naturalized, which is to be expected given its Mediterranean origin.

There are two variants of this tree: the sombre, column-shaped one and the more irregularly shaped one.  Both are variants of the same species and it is mistaken to assume that the seemingly neatly manicured pillar-shaped type is the result of pruning.

This tree grows to impressive heights which makes it quite visible in our landscape in comparison to most of our low-lying species.  Its thick, solid trunk and dense dark foliage give it the true sense of solidity and greatness to be expected from a tree.  It has been known to grow to a height of up to 25 metres although on average most specimens tend to be shorter than this maximum height.  It is a hardy tree which can resist the strong winds which prevail over our archipelago

Each tree produces both male and female flowers.  The fertilised female flowers produce a ball-shaped cone which produces winged seeds after it dries up.

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Besides its official Maltese nomenclature as the Sigra tac-Cipress, the tree is also known as the Sigra tal-Mejtin (tree of the dead) or the Cipress Bikkejja (weeping cypress), given the tradition of planting it in cemeteries, standing sentinel over the graves.  This is an old tradition in the Mediterranean region, possibly dating back to Graeco-Roman times when the Cypress was known as the “Mournful Tree” and was considered a favourite with the Gods of the Underworld.  However, this association with cemeteries may have a more practical application dating back to antiquity.  One explanation I have found links this tree with cemeteries owing to the fragrant resin it produces in the unforgiving summer heat, which resin used to prove useful in masking the stench of decomposition emanating from poorly sealed graves in the past.

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In recent years the tree has been planted in a number of areas in the Maltese countryside amongst which two substantial groves in the Ghajn Tuffieha road and Gnejna Valley.

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