The smell of the rain

The smell of the rain

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When you live in a country where rain is a regular occurrence, it becomes a fact of life, almost an annoyance. Particularly in areas where precipitation is a year round affair and where the prospect of uninterrupted spells of rainfall implies inconvenience, damp and blocked sunlight for long periods of time, the subject of rain becomes a topic of distaste; a phenomenon which necessitates the need to temporarily flee one’s normal abode in search of warmth and sunshine.

Not so in places where rain is not so common. Such as Malta during the long, hot, dry summer season. A place where week after week of warm to hot sunny days prevail almost uninterruptedly between late spring and late summer: around twelve weeks of hot, dry weather which burns the countryside dry and lets you wonder at the resilient patches of green vegetation which defy the furnace-like quality of what they face and survive almost without a drop of soothing water for sustenance, except for the occasional heavy dewfall which is absorbed through their leaves.

Those of us who inhabit such areas are generally sensitive to a particular sensation which is most magnified when it rains after a long dry period. I term this sensation, the smell of the rain. A wonderfully rich and refreshing earthy smell which brings great joy. An indicator of change to come. The first airborne drop of relief in advance of wetter days ahead.

I used to think that this sensation was something that was simply an undefinable feeling. Some primitive switch to which humans in dry places are programmed to respond. Until an architect friend of mine told me that there is actually a word for it! Petrichor. A combination of two distinct words, petra and ichor designed to embrace and encapsulate the feeling that has been arousing my senses since childhood.

Petra stands for stone while ichor stands for the more esoteric fluid that flowed in the veins of the Gods in Greek mythology! So there you have it: a heavenly fluid mixing with the very earth on which we lesser human mortals stand. Producing a sensation of what flows through the Gods’ own veins! No wonder the feeling of euphoric refreshment which the smell of the first rain brings.

Researchers theorise that the smell of the rain, or petrichor is caused by a combination of factors. Part of the smell derives from an oily substance exuded by certain plants during dry periods which is absorbed by clay and rocks on the ground. When it rains after a lengthy dry spell, the oil is released into the air along with another compound, geosmin, a metabolic by-product of certain bacteria which is emitted by wet soil, producing the distinctive scent. The smell can be further compounded by ozone which is generated by lightning during a thunderstorm.

The purpose of the oil is to slow down seed germination and plant growth during the lethal dry season. It is only when the rain dissipates the oil in the ground that the seeds get the go-ahead to germinate. This would indicate that the plants produce the oil in order to safeguard the seeds from germination under duress.

Just imagine what is taking place whenever you feel this exuberant high! As each raindrop lands on the porous surface of the sun-baked ground, air trapped in the pores forms small bubbles, which float to the surface and release spray-like aerosols.  Such aerosols carry the scent, as well as bacteria and viruses from the soil. Gentle rainfall tends to produce more aerosols which explains why petrichor is stronger and more noticeable after light rains.

As to why it excites us so much? Scientists believe that humans react so joyfully to the smell of the rain because our ancestors may have been hard-wired to rely on rainy weather for survival.

Blood of the Gods splashing on dry stones or complex organic chemicals released by plants and bacteria? Whatever the origin, the magic remains for all those who like me are sensitive to its timeless pleasure.

 

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Using Nature’s discarded Bounty: making home-made Carob Syrup.

Using Nature’s discarded Bounty: making home-made Carob Syrup.

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In most Maltese households one is sure to find the ubiquitous jar of “Gulepp tal-Harrub” or carob syrup, an elixir guaranteed to soothe the cruellest of coughs, whose popularity is passed on from generation to generation.  Like most things traditional, however, the home-made varieties so matter-of-factly produced by our ancestors have made way to commercially produced products so that while most people continue to purchase and use the syrup, they have lost the link with its natural source and with it the skill to produce their own at home.

Following last July’s blog entry in which I pondered on the wonders of carob trees and the pleasure of munching some fresh carob pods cut from an old tree, I decided to carry out some research on making Carob Syrup, and on discovering the relative ease with which it can be made, I decided to give it a try and produce enough to last me through the next twelve month cycle until the next carob pod harvest.

My entry today proposes to enthusiastically share my successful experience at making home-made gulepp tal-harrub in the hope that I might entice some readers to try it for themselves thus using a few more of the hundreds of thousands of carob pods which go to waste year after year.

The first step was to source a decent quantity of pods. I found an old, pod-laden tree in a field adjacent to the University and quickly filled a bagful from just a couple of branches. Each pod weighs around 20 grams so around 50 pods are necessary for a kilogram. The pods are already ripe so early in August and the tree had already shed hundreds on to the ground below. The one hundred-plus pods I collected did not even make a dent on the tree’s bountiful output and I felt good that at least a minuscule fraction of its free and generous produce was being put to use instead of wasting on the ground.

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Once home, I spread the pods on the table, removed loose twigs and leaves, and then took them in handfuls to the kitchen sink for a thorough rinse under running water. After patting them dry, I used kitchen scales to weigh a kilogram of pods and placed the pods onto a baking dish for roasting in the oven. I used a very high oven temperature (just a notch short of full) for around 50 minutes until the pods turned a bit crisp and brittle and started exuding the roasted-woody smell reminiscent of roasted chestnuts.

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After 50 minutes I took the pods out of the oven and let them cool. Meanwhile I filled a sizeable pot with two litres of water and proceeded to break each pod into little pieces by hand and throw it into the water. I covered the pot and let the pods soak for 24 hours to release their flavour and juices into the water. The water started to turn brown almost immediately. The liquid eventually formed the basis of the syrup which was produced on the following day.

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After 24 hours had passed, the mixture was placed on the cooker hob, brought to the boil and simmered gently for one hour to release more juice/flavour from the pods. By the end of the hour the liquid was very dark having absorbed the oils, sugars and flavours of the pods. The smell was divine. The pod fragments were then filtered off by sieving and the remaining liquid was put to the boil again after having 1 kilogram of sugar added. Once it reached boiling point it was left to simmer gently for 90 minutes, receiving a stir every now and then.

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The heating reduces the amount of water in the solution leading to a thickening of the liquid until it reaches a syrupy consistency. Once ready, it is recommended that the syrup is transferred hot to sterilised jars and sealed for eventual use.

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I have already received a number of ideas of variations to the above recipe which is time consuming but ultimately simple to make. Some have suggested using one litre of water with one kilogram of carob pods and using less sugar, preferably brown. The addition of bay leaves, cloves, anisette or brandy have also been suggested, while for better storage, one other suggestion is to pour a layer of scotch on the syrup before sealing the jar to lengthen its storage life.

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What are the benefits of Gulepp tal-harrub? You can either enjoy it as a refreshing year-round drink by diluting a couple of tablespoons of it in water, either cold or warm depending on the season. In terms of health, it serves as an effective expectorant, hence its popularity as an elixir for coughs. It is also a strong antioxidant, slowing down cell degeneration whilst also reputedly reducing levels of “bad” cholesterol. And it tastes good!

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Of carob pods and carats

 

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Walking in the Mellieha countryside this weekend, in the traffic-free and solitary whereabouts of Ghajn Tuta, I came across an ancient carob tree laden with ripe pods. The carob, known to science as Ceratonia siliqua and as harrub to the Maltese is a hardy evergreen tree which graces the Maltese landscape and retains a canopy of green in the otherwise parched and dry summer Mediterranean landscape.

The carob is an evergreen flowering shrub, belonging to the pea family. It is native to the Mediterranean region especially in the eastern and southern area of this great Sea and is a very common species here in Malta where it grows without much care or cultivation and is legally protected, although countless ancient carobs unfortunately continue to be regularly uprooted to make way for development.

The carob’s fruit, its pod, has been consumed since ancient times by the peoples of the Mediterranean. The Bible makes numerous references to it such as in the parable of the Prodigal Son where the man who squandered all his riches and ended up working as a swineherd, longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything”.

On the basis of another biblical reference, it is also known as Saint John’s Bread or locust bean given that when Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist was fasting in the desert, “the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.” The locusts referred to in the biblical passage are not of the grasshopper variety but carob pods!

In Malta the ripe carob fruit is used to produce a syrup called “Gulepp tal-Harrub” which is used to treat chest colds and coughs and also forms the basis of the “karamelli tal-harrub” sweets which are popular for consumption during Lent when it is forbidden to consume sugary sweets. In times of scarcity, the carob pod was ground into a flour to produce bread. During the siege of Malta in World War 2, carob pods became highly prized for their nutritional value and fetched the highest-ever recorded market price of a penny a pod!

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I prefer to eat my carob pods straight from nature. Detached from the tree, rinsed under clean, running water and chewed one small mouthful at a time. Beware of the very hard seeds inside the pod which can easily break a tooth! Eat them in the countryside and spit the seeds onto the soil to help propagate new trees or savour them at home. An unrefined, woody sweet flavour which leaves a delectable aftertaste in one’s mouth!

But does one simply eat carobs for fun? There are many ascribed nutrition and health benefits which can be summarised as follows:

Carob tannins contain Gallic acid that works as an analgesic, anti-allergic, antibacterial, antioxidant, antiviral and antiseptic. It improves digestion and lowers cholesterol level in the blood and is used for treating bowel disorders in children and adults alike. Since it does not contain caffeine, carob is beneficial for people with high blood pressure.

The vitamin E content in carob helps in treating cough, flu and anaemia while the Gallic acid helps in preventing and treating polio in children. Carob fights against osteoporosis due to its richness in phosphorus and calcium. Carob pod husks are chewed by singers to clear the voice and throat.

And the seeds? Small and hard there is not much of a culinary use and unless you wish to plant them in a pot to grow little carob trees, just throw them away into the countryside where they may either take root or serve as food for the birds. But have one final look at them and hold one in your hands. For the humble carob seed you are holding was used by the ancients as a unit of measure for weighing gold and precious stones.  The carob’s scientific name Ceratonia siliqua originates from the Greek name for carob seeds: keration.  The word carat used in this sense is a corruption of this Greek word!

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Snapshot from a historic garden

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Snapshot from a historic garden

For most people, the suburb of Floriana is merely a place of transit en route to Malta’s capital Valletta. This is indeed a pity, for Floriana, in spite of its relatively small size, features a rich variety of places to visit, foremost amongst which its numerous public gardens, mostly on the extensive network of fortifications which were built as an outer buffer to the massive bulwarks defending Valletta itself.

One of the oldest of these gardens is the Argotti Botanic Gardens on the Marsamxett Harbour flank of Floriana.  The garden’s oldest parts date back to 1741 when they served as the private domain of the Portuguese Grandmaster of the Order of St. John in Malta Dom Fra’ Manuel Pinto da Fonseca.  They were later cared for and extended by the Bailiff Ignatius de Argote et Gusman from whose family name the corrupted name Argotti originated.

During the Knights’ period, the gardens were used to grow medicinal herbs and plants bearing in mind the Order’s Hospitaller vocation only to be later transformed into the Botanical Gardens we see today during the early years of the British period in 1805.

Amongst the Argotti Garden’s treasured possessions one finds an extensive and internationally recognised collection of potted cacti which are available for public display in the enclosed area managed by the University of Malta and which is generally accessible by appointment with the Curator during office hours.

The photo which is the subject of this short entry shows an area of dense foliage in the Gardens which is dominated by an impressive giant cactus which looks like some surreal creation from Salvador Dalí’s paintbrush.

The Neo-Gothic building in the background is the Wesleyan Methodist Church which was designed by architect Thomas Mullet Ellis in 1881 and was completed in 1883 under the direction of Poulsen. It was inaugurated for religious worship on the 18th March 1883.

A snapshot of yet another of those nonchalantly and perfectly co-existing Maltese paradox landscapes: a decades old New World cactus flanked by a South East Asian ficus and a North African date palm in a herb garden designed by eighteenth century Catholic warrior monks with a nineteenth century Protestant place of worship filling up the background!

 

Sunset over the southern coast

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Sunset over the southern coast

A beautiful Maltese sunset seen from the limits of Qrendi in the south of the island. The broad expanse of the Mediterranean stretches in an uninterrupted direction all the way to the Tunisian coast about five hundred kilometres away.

The minuscule islet of Filfla, the remotest of the uninhabited smaller rocks of the Maltese archipelago lies silhouetted against the ruddy hues of the setting sun, its imposing 60 metre high cliffs like standing sentinel against the approaching darkness.

The exposed hard layer of coralline limestone karst is almost devoid of soil, its thin layer of organic cover washed into the sea ages ago once the trees which originally bound it to the land were cut. This landscape is far from dead however, supporting rich and aromatic Mediterranean garigue vegetation such as thyme, heather, asphodel and sea squill.

At the bottom of the picture, the small and picturesque inlet of Wied iz-Zurrieq, a tiny and narrow coastal indentation providing shelter to the small fleet of boats which ferry tourists to Zurrieq’s Blue Grotto further down along the coast.

Many call Wied iz-Zurrieq a fjord and superficially it does give the impression of being a mini version of one, but fjords are carved by glacial ice and glaciers have never featured in the Maltese landscape, not even during the ice ages. It is actually a ria, a submerged river canyon caused when a valley that was originally carved by fresh water on land ends up below sea level either due to a rise in sea level or due to land subsidence.

Within a few minutes total darkness will prevail. In the southern Mediterranean latitudes which are ten degrees closer to the Equator than they are to the North Pole, twilight is always brief. Like flicking off a light switch, someone once described it. But until that light switch is flicked off, the ephemeral beauty of the setting sun’s multi-hued light on this beautiful coastal stretch is captured by this picture for all to enjoy.

Comino: the island of singular experiences

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Comino: the island of singular experiences

It all depends on how you look at it of course. Barren, empty, crying out for development according to some.  Precious, pristine, untouchable according to others.  I find myself leaning towards this latter viewpoint.

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Comino: three square kilometres of parched upper coralline limestone deprived of the perched aquifers providing liquid sustenance to its larger siblings.  High cliffs,  miniscule inlets and its own brood of smaller islets: a mini archipelago within an archipelago.  Together with its magnificent Blue Lagoon which attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year.

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Elsewhere such a small rock would have probably been ignored.  But not in Malta, where every square kilometre of territory has its own story to tell!  Roman and Punic burials, ancient shipwrecks, finds of pottery and coins and troglodyte structures all point to a millenary human presence on this tiny island.

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Comino was also an island of exile as evidenced by Cabbalist’s Abraham Abulafia’s thirteenth century solitary confinement there after managing to attract the combined wrath and fear of Christian and Jewish religious leaders with his teachings.  The island’s solitude was also exploited by Barbary pirates raiding shipping between Malta and Gozo and smugglers from Sicily seeking to evade the Maltese quarantine authorities during times of plague on the Italian island.  The reaction to this was the building of the imposing Santa Maria Tower to stem piracy and the small Police Station in Santa Maria Bay to deter smuggling.

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Its isolation also attracted the building of a Hospital by the British following a cholera outbreak in the nineteenth century on the site of an older eighteenth century Knights’ period residential structure called il-Palazz and the more recent, twentieth century pig-farm to help Malta re-populate its swine population following a deadly outbreak of African Swine Fever.

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You will witness a chapel of medieval origin complete with an Eastern Christian-style wooden iconostasis screen separating the altar from the faithful and a small, enclosed cemetery complete with gnarled cypresses clinging for dear life on a windswept hill pointing to humanity’s religious needs during its short worldly presence and its need to rest in peace in expectation of an afterlife.  Faith, life and death aside, there is also an impressive gun battery to guard shipping movements in the channel facing the extreme northern tip of Malta.

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Look out for scattered evidence of a twentieth century attempt at sustaining a private agricultural colony: terraced fields in miniscule, meandering valleys with their low dry-stone walls struggling to prevent the sparse red soil from being washed away into the nearby sea.  Pines, carobs and olives planted as windbreakers and sources of sustenance and fuel.

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Also an abandoned bakery, complete with stone oven and vats for mixing the dough, for the once-a-week baking of the bread for the farming community.  There once also was a schoolhouse within the confines of the abandoned hospital to educate the colony’s children.  The colony is long gone but one determined permanent household remains, eking a living from agricultural produce.  And from the last half of the twentieth century, the more recent tourism development consisting of the hotel and its handful of bungalows a stone’s throw away.

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There are a couple of water pumping stations that harvest fresh water from the sea-level aquifer whose existence was unknown until the nineteenth century and a few ugly, functional structures, standing like a cancerous blight on the ancient landscape, erected in more recent, insensitive times in connection with the transfer of electric power from Malta to Gozo.

Comino is an island with almost no vehicular traffic and with a few dusty paths for roads.  A place to walk, to sit, to smell and to fill the senses with the aura of nature.  A photographer’s paradise, a nature-lover’s dream, a birdwatcher’s haven.  An island of wild rabbits and scurrying lizards.

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Then there is the sea: that most deep azure of blue seas tempered with the mesmerizing turquoises, which only the unique combination of coralline limestone sand and crystal clear water can create.  The sea which dominates the entire landscape and changes its hue depending on depth, light and shadow. A paradise for divers with natural caves, impeccable water quality, wrecks to explore and diverse marine flora and fauna.

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Finally Comino is mostly about nature.  Vast swathes of virgin garigue, fragrant with Mediterranean thyme and other aromatic species dominate the landscape.   In some areas, the garigue gives way to more verdant steppe where patches of lentisk bushes, treasured for their mastic resin all over the Mediterranean but ignored and unknown over here, are to be found.  There is a small and endangered sand-dune habitat in the hinterland of the miniscule Santa Maria Bay together with isolated communities of cliff-side vegetation supporting shy populations of sea birds amongst the boulder screes.

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My Comino is for the connoisseur: the visitor who is capable of stopping to savour the beauty of an unsophisticated but beautiful landscape and seascape.   It is like an aged distillate to be savoured slowly, not in a rush.  It is the place to slow down your pace, narrow your field of vision, observe what you usually ignore.  A place which you can either dismiss as barren and empty or appreciate in terms of its rich diversity if you bother to adjust your scale.   Once you get to this stage there is really no going back and you will join the ranks of those who dream of its continued protection and isolation.  Dreamers like me.

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The sand dunes of Malta

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The sand dunes of Malta

For an island group which is not particularly known for the quantity and vastness of its sandy beaches, the title of this essay sounds bombastically off mark.  Yet, in spite of this geographical fact, the Maltese archipelago does contain a number of sandy beaches, some of which have also managed to continue to sustain a sand dune hinterland with a resultant unique natural habitat: a habitat made even more interesting by the fact that it contains some of the rarest and threatened flora on the islands.

Sandy beaches generally form at the mouth of valleys where the land slopes gently into the shallow sea.  Millennia of seasonal rains cause fine grained material to be carried by storm water action to be deposited on the sea bed until a thick layer of sand creates the beach.  The vagaries of weather including wave action pounding on the coast deposit quantities of sand on land leading to the familiar crescent shaped sandy beach sloping gently into the sea.

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The type and quality of material which is transported by water down the valley bears a strong relationship with the type and quality of beach, with some beaches being composed of stones and pebbles while others are composed of sand.  Here in the Maltese Islands one can distinguish between two main types of sandy beach: the ones with reddish sand, such as Ramla l-Hamra and San Blas on Gozo and Ghajn Tuffieha, Golden Bay and Gnejna on Malta and the ones with a lighter coloured sand such as the beaches in Mellieha, Armier, Paradise Bay and Balluta Bay on Malta, Xlendi Bay on Gozo and the Blue Lagoon, and Santa Marija Bay on Comino.

Maltese beaches with reddish sand are generally to be found in places where there are exposed clay slopes.  In Maltese geology, the clay layer is topped with a deposit of “green sand” which oxidizes to the more familiar red when exposed to the atmosphere.  On the other hand, the Maltese beaches with the lighter coloured sand are ones in which coralline or globigerina limestone layers are the predominant surface of their valley sources.

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Beaches are traditionally self replenishing through the annual draining and depositing of material, and the biggest beaches that are still in existence in Malta are the ones whose watercourses are still undisturbed, such as Ghajn Tuffieha, Gnejna and Ramla l-Hamra.  Unfortunately, the construction of roads just a few metres behind a number of beaches, generally followed by intensive construction activities have choked the supply of sediment to a vast number of Maltese beaches with the result that previously bigger sandy beaches have slowly wasted to sorry remnants of what they once were.

Examples of such declining beaches include relatively big beaches such as Mellieha, Armier and Xemxija and a range of smaller ones which have almost faded into obscurity such as Salina, Qalet Marku, Balluta, Xlendi, Rinella, Marsascala and St George’s Bay in St. Julians.  All of these locations are characterized by a road and construction which has cut their link with the valleys behind them, with the latter having been recently replenished with crushed granite imported from a terrestrial source in Jordan to avoid contamination with invasive marine organisms.

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Sand dunes are the natural hinterland of undisturbed beaches.  They form the buffer zone between the beach and the valley floor behind it.  They consist of sand which accumulates at the back of the beach as a result of wind and wave action. They are a sort of middle ground: an area where the predominant material is sand but where vegetation still grows.  The sand dune is an area where the underground water flowing downwards from the valley is predominantly fresh to brackish (depending on the season) as opposed to saline beneath the exposed sand of the beach.

This means that sand dunes can support a variety of plant life which is specially adapted to their unique environmental conditions.  It needs to be life which can survive extreme aridity and heat.  It also needs to adapt to the reality of literally living in a shifting environment where the action of wind and water can affect rapid changes to the profile of the landscape.  This calls for strong root systems which are capable of penetrating deep to seek water and sustenance.  For it is from down in the depths of the sand dune that these plants draw the essentials to remain alive and thrive.

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As already indicated, this is one of the rarest habitats in Malta.  Already scarce to start with given the small number of sandy beaches in the Maltese archipelago, this habitat has suffered huge losses due to urbanization, extension of coastal road networks and mass tourism activity.  In a way, it is a miracle that some remnants of it still survive!

The best examples of reasonably intact sand dune habitats to be found on these islands are few.  The best by far is the one in Ramla l-Hamra Bay on Gozo.  This glorious beach has managed to survive the ravages of time and development primarily through the almost total lack of development in its pristine valley.  However it has also found additional assistance from a sub-sea wall, built during the reign of the Knights of St. John which was designed to ground enemy shipping attempting to beach there.  This wall has over the centuries assisted in retaining vast quantities of sand from being lost in deeper waters with the result that Ramla is by far the largest sandy beach in the country.  The sand dune in Ramla is reasonably intact, generally well protected and well marked as a cordoned-off zone which is off limits to beachgoers.  This is in sharp contrast to the situation prevailing until a few years ago when campers had a free rein to pitch their tents among the dunes, making campfires and wreaking havoc and damage to this habitat in the process.

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On the main island of Malta, the best sand dune habitats are to be found in Ramla tal-Mixquqa (Golden Bay), Ghajn Tuffieha Bay and Gnejna Bay.  A reasonably extensive, though seriously threatened and degraded dune also exists in the hinterland of Ramla tat-Torri beach, surrounded by the illegally constructed beach houses prevalent in this part of the north of Malta.

A huge sand dune also used to exist until the mid 1970s in the area of Mellieha Bay now housing the bird reserve.  Remnants of this sand dune remain incorporated within the grounds of the reserve.  Other small examples of sand dune habitats can be found in Santa Marija Bay on Comino and near the minute Slugs Bay in l-Ahrax tal-Mellieha.

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Being as rare as they are, sand dunes offer a special fascination, although they often go unnoticed by the absolute majority of people who bypass them on the way to the beach.  They contain plants which are amazing when considering their capability to sprout almost effortlessly from barren sand. Witnessing the tough delicateness of plants emerging almost effortlessly from dry, hot sand on a hot summer’s day is a miracle of nature that is worth pondering upon, even if for a few seconds, if you happen to be walking by a sand dune.

Needless to say, given their rare and threatened status within the Maltese biosphere, all the plants in the Maltese sand dune habitat are in some way or another threatened.  What differs is the level of threat which they face: with some being almost certainly extinct and others not having been observed for years.

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Even those plants which are still fairly common in the surviving dunes: plants such as the Sea daffodil (Pancratium maritimum), the Sea Medick (Medicago maritima) and the Sea Holly (Eryngium maritimum) are still rare and threatened, while others such as the Prickly parsnip (Echinophora spinosa) and the Sea bindweed (Calystegia soldanella) are classified as very rare.  The versatile spurge family is also present in the sand dunes, particularly through the aptly named Sea spurge (Euphorbia paralias), with another coastal species the Sea Rocket (Cakile maritima) also making a presence.  A number of thistle species have also successfully colonized the sand dune habitat with one of the most common being the Common golden thistle (Scolymus hispanicus).

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This list mentions but the most common of a range of rare and threatened species, struggling for survival in one of Malta’s harshest habitats, and that’s against some stiff competition!  Within this list my personal favourite is the Sea daffodil, a plant which is beautiful at all times of the year, but which peaks during the impossibly hot and dry summer months.

For it is during this most arid of periods that this surprising plant decides to produce an abundance of huge, delicate, white flowers.  Flowers are usually associated with the mild spring period when sunshine and rainfall are both to be found in copious amounts in average temperatures.  Witnessing these flowers on stalks emerging from sand so hot that you can’t walk on it in August when it has not rained for around ten weeks is an experience which is stupefying if only you just stop and wonder for just a few minutes.

Whilst this rare habitat, known in Maltese as gharam tar-ramel, continues to be threatened, it is positive to see that it is enjoying increasing protection and recognition.  The management of beaches such as Ramla l-Hamra and Ghajn Tuffieha by NGOs such as the Gaia Foundation has not only controlled the wildest of excesses such as camping, four-wheel drive off-roading and other indiscriminately destructive activities, but has also led to the introduction of practical steps, such as cordoned-off zones, limiting human activity on the dunes.  Elsewhere, beaches vying for the Blue Flag Status also need to introduce visible elements of nature protection and appreciation to their users.

In a densely populated country such as Malta, facing all the pressures that it does from an active population coupled with the needs of international tourism, the preservation of the natural environment will always be an uphill struggle.  The sand dunes represent one of the most threatened habitats we possess and may well be one of the first to disappear if complacency and insensitivity win over care and awareness.  Losing them will be a great loss which I sincerely hope will never come to pass.

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Next time you’re in Ramla Bay do spend five minutes observing this small world and I’m sure that you will be overawed by its simple beauty and its tenacity.  I am sure that becoming aware of its delicate ruggedness will convince you of the need to preserve it for posterity.