Trees are one of the finest of the earth’s natural resources, as well as one of the longest living organisms on the planet. They are vital to the ecological, environmental and even economic value of a country. In Malta, trees are a limited yet important feature of the landscape. Unfortunately, due to the relentless urbanisation of the island, most of them are also a threatened asset. Wild native Maltese trees are becoming a rarity, even though most of the species in decline are nowadays being cultivated within public parks, private gardens and street plantations.
One must keep in mind that trees promote biodiversity, since they stabilise sediment, contain the uptake of runoff waters, serve as a safe haven for birds, as well as shelter the population of earthworms, grubs, and other animals which help increase the amount of air and water that gets into the soil, as well as break down organic matter such as dead leaves, which then serve as a natural fertiliser. They’re also essential in creating a purer air system, since they – together with other plants – convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. This is why one must especially be careful when transplanting, uprooting or even pruning trees, as by displacing them, one could also be creating an imbalance within the local bio-system as well.
Here are some of the most well-known species of trees found in the Maltese islands:
The Sandarac Gum Tree (Siġra tal-Għargħar)
This is the National Maltese tree, yet unfortunately, it’s also a species which has been labelled as being endangered worldwide. This tree in fact only grows in Malta, in the western part of North Africa, and within a small region of Spain, and it is strictly protected by law and cannot be destroyed, removed or pruned without legal permits. It’s an evergreen coniferous (cone producing) tree related to the cypress family and is capable of growing from 6 to 15m in height. Its delicate flattened branches are covered with small scale-like leaves.
Photo above by: Stephen Mifsud, MaltaWildPlants.com
The Olive Tree (Siġra taż-Żebbuġ)
The olive tree is an evergreen tree which is short and squat, having a broad crown, and which can reach from 8 to 15m in height. To be fair, I’m here talking about the normal plentiful Olea Europaea, found in Africa, Europe and parts of Asia, and not the rare Perla Maltese, which is a recently rediscovered species of white olive tree that is endemic to Malta.
The common olive tree was introduced to our islands probably during the Roman period, as a primary resource of food and oil, and was cultivated extensively in certain areas. Some olive trees in Malta are in fact very old – as old as 2,000 years. Olives ripen around October or early November, and turn to a dark violet colour at maturity.
Holm Oak (Siġra tal-Ballut)
This tree – native to the Mediterranean region – is indigenous to the Maltese islands and is an evergreen oak. It flowers between April and May, and is one of Malta’s dominant tree species, easily found in copses of trees within Wardija, Dingli and Buskett. The structure of the hairy leaves is optimal for retaining water, and they usually fall and are renewed every two years. Its acorns turn brown when they mature, which can take from 6 to 12 months.
Photo above by: Leslie Vella
Carob Tree (Siġra tal-Ħarrub)
This indigenous tree is a dominant evergreen on our islands and is a member of the legume family. It grows to about 10 – 15m in height, and its carob pods are used to make ġulepp and karamelli sweets sold on Good Friday, and for the use of animal fodder. Developing carob pods have the appearance of green broad beans, but they turn a dark glossy brown when ripe. Although it’s an evergreen tree, it sheds its leaves all year round, making the earth beneath it very ripe and fertile.
Aleppo Pine (Siġra taż-Żnuber/Siġra tal-Prinjol)
Another evergreen, this tree is characterised by its long needle-like leaves, and its yellow-brown-red cones. These are originally triangular, but open up in a petal-like form slowly over a period of years, in order to allow the seeds to disperse. A sticky substance called ‘resin’ comes out of the tree-trunk and is a natural disinfectant. Aleppo pines grow best in sunny climes, since the cones need the warmth of the sun to open up and propagate the seeds.