For a country so small, the Maltese islands have a vast array of flora and fauna. While the fauna consists of mostly small animals whose tendency is to scurry and shy away from people, the flora does not bother to hide itself. Incredibly the islands boast of around a thousand wild flowering plants and an impressive 700 of these are indigenous to the islands. These bloom at different times of the year but it is in spring that the vast majority of them come into flower – turning swathes of countryside into an incredibly beautiful patchwork.
The climax of Mediterranean ecosystems, woodland, is almost absent in Malta; it is likely that the islands’ earliest settlers had probably deforested the islands by the end of prehistoric times. The Knights tried their best to rectify matters by planting Buskett, which now has become a self-generating woodland, characterized by Aleppo pines, olive and orange trees. Garigue and maquis are by far the most interesting and richest of the islands’ habitats. Maquis is normally associated with the sides of steep valleys where relative shade and humidity allow for the growth of smaller trees and bushes. Carobs, olives, lentisk and bay laurel abound here; accompanied by various climbers like ivy and wild asparagus and the beautiful bear’s breeches with its impressive white and purple flower stalk.
But it is the garigue which probably brings out the best in Maltese flora. Garigues are rocky expanses bearing numerous depressions which allow soil to collect and water to percolate. The garigue habitat is mostly prevalent in the west of Malta with good examples around Mellieha, Rabat, Dingli, Mgarr and other towns. Gozo has some garigue expanses as well, the largest being the vast one at Ta Cenc and the smaller Tal-Marg.
Garigue areas may look deceptively arid for most of the year but make up for this in a big way during the spring months from March to late May. Garigue is characterised by low aromatic bushes – the most prominent of these being the wild thyme which in late May turns vast areas into a sea of purple. Prominent in Gozo but relatively rare in Malta is the aromatic Bushy Restharrow – a low bush producing small yellow flowers. Also present in garigue is the rosemary bush – a plant with small flowers and highly scented aromatic leaves – much sought after to garnish pork and other dishes.
Rarer inhabitants of the garigue are wild irises. There are two varieties of this in Malta – a dwarf one which flowers from late February to early March and a larger (and rarer) one which flowers in May. Another show stopper is the Sicilian Squill – a plant with an exquisite flower head of white and celestial blue and only found in Malta and in very small numbers in Sicily and Calabria – in these latter places it is considered close to extinction.
But perhaps the most exquisite of garigue inhabitants are the orchids. The islands have around a dozen different orchid species and two of them (The Maltese Pyramidal orchid and the Maltese Spider Orchid) are endemic to the islands. The Maltese Pyramidal is particularly attractive, coming in shades of pink bordering on white, and is still relatively common with large numbers occurring at the Majjistral Park in northern Malta. Majjistral is reckoned to hold around 80% of the islands’ flora and is one of the best places to witness this colourful floral extravaganza.
Ironically the islands’ commonest flowering plant has a very English connection. The Cape Sorrel (Oxalis pes caprae), an attractive but invasive species from South Africa, reputedly entered Malta via a well-meaning English lady who donated a few species to the Argotti Botanical Gardens sometime in the 19th century. From there it spread like wildfire and today is found in all corners of the islands. To this day it is still referred locally as the English Weed.