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.
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?!