In March Malta’s mild winter all but retreats to let in a short and benign spring lasting up to the end of May. Temperatures warm up and it is the best time for outdoor ventures. Nature also obliges with a wonderful display of wild flora and a riot of flowers.
Notwithstanding their small size the Maltese Islands boast of about a thousand flowering wild plants and shrubs. Around 700 of these are indigenous (growing naturally here) while the rest are introduced alien species. Of the islands’ species about 15 are endemic – meaning that they are found growing naturally only here and nowhere else worldwide.
Malta has a variety of ecosystems, each harbouring its own particular plants. Woodland – the climax of Mediterranean ecosystems – is quite rare in Malta and the only examples of established woods are at Buskett and Mizieb. Garigue, maquis and clay slope ecosystems are fairly well represented and there is one outstanding sand dune system at Ramla in Gozo.
But it is the garigue that really bursts to life in spring. Mediterranean garigue is a rough rocky habitat featuring small pockets of soil. Deceptively arid, it is in actual fact a rich habitat characterised by spiny or aromatic dwarf shrubs interspersed with colourful ephemeral species.
Perhaps the most attractive of garigue inhabitants are the orchids. Malta has some dozen orchid species, with the Maltese Pyramidal and the Maltese Spider orchids being unique to the islands. The Maltese Pyramidal is fairly common and is usually in bloom around mid-March, while the Maltese Spider Orchid is more difficult to spot, with the garigue at Pembroke having the largest local population.
Wild irises are also among the showier of the garigue residents and they come in two hues – yellow and a rich velvety purple. This species has a very limited distribution in Europe – found only in Sicily and parts of the former Yugoslavia. Equally showy is the Sicilian Squill – a low plant which bursts with an exquisite flower head of white and celestial blue. Found locally in small numbers, it is also a native of Sicily and Calabria – in both of these last places it is considered close to extinction.
The garigue also features a variety of aromatic shrubs with wild thyme and rosemary being the best known for their rich and pleasant smells. Though wild rosemary is quite scarce, thyme is a very common inhabitant of garigues and one of the last species to flower – turning whole areas into purple carpets around the end of May.
Garigue habitats are 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 one at Ta Cenc. Practically the whole of Comino is also garigue. The Majjistral Park near Golden Bay features the largest area of garigue – and one of the richest in biodiversity as well. Regular guided tours at the park – especially in the months of March and April – are a great way to experience first-hand Malta’s rich natural heritage.
Click to Read about The Gardens of Malta and Gozo.