The name Maltese rock centaury gives this plant away as a Maltese endemic. It is in fact found only in the Maltese islands with related species in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Algeria, as well as in the Canary Islands.

This is one of the best-known Maltese wild plants. In 1971, it was depicted on two postage stamps in a set of four which also included the blue rock thrush. These two species were unofficially declared the national plant and national bird respectively even though there is no legislation to back their status.

The plant is known in Maltese as widnet il-ba─žar, which translates to ‘ear of the sea’, which does not sound as beautiful as its Maltese name.

Wild Maltese rock centauries grow on sea cliffs on the west of Malta and the south of Gozo but it can be easily propagated from cuttings. Nowadays it is often planted in public areas but should be planted even more often. Every Maltese school should have at least one specimen growing on its grounds and between May and July have it flowering outside their classrooms.

The Maltese rock centaury was first described to science by a Stefano Zerafa, a Maltese medical doctor, in a publication on Maltese flora sometime in the 1820s.

Zerafa placed it in a monotypic genus Paleocyanus, which means it had no close relatives. However, in 2000, a Spanish botanist, after a study of the plant’s DNA, transferred it to the Western Mediterranean genus Cheirolophus.

This species is protected by both local and international legislation but in spite of this protection, all is not well for our best-known plant. Its existence in the wild is threatened, especially, because of the destruction of its natural habitat. Many cliff faces, where it used to flourish, have been quarried and destroyed. Some plants still end up beneath a pile of building material dumped illegally by irresponsible compatriots.

Habitat loss is the biggest threat to Maltese fauna and flora. We cannot afford to lose more natural areas. Positive action must be taken now to save the little that is left. We should stop building on natural habitats and create more nature reserves and parks, and restore and manage them for their optimum biodiversity.

portelli.paul@gmail.com

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