Local scientists agree that about 27 vascular plants are only found on the Maltese islands and defined as endemic plants.
They are all equally important species for the ecology of our islands but perhaps many agree that the most attractive is the Maltese pyramidal orchid.
This orchid forms numerous white to baby pink flowers stacked and spiralled over each other, forming an attractive and eye-catching cone- or pyramidal-shaped inflorescence.
It is locally frequent in a number of garigue areas in mainland Malta but its occurrence is rather rare in Gozo. This endemic plant is easy to encounter at Wied Babu in Żurrieq, Xemxija, Dingli Cliffs, Wied il-Għasel in Mosta and Ta’ Ċenċ in Gozo.
This orchid was described by local pioneer botanists Stefano Sommier and Alfredo Caruana Gatto under the name Anacamptis urvilleana in 1915. The epithet ‘urvilleana’ was dedicated to a famous French explorer, naval officer and botanist Jules Dumont d’Urville (1790-1842).
The Maltese pyramidal orchid is closely related to the common pyramidal orchid (Anacaptis pyramidalis) but, as stipulated by these botanists, it is distinct from the latter by forming smaller flowers with much lighter colour, more compact and rounded inflorescence spikes and they blossom some six to eight weeks earlier, with its flowering peak being during mid March.
It is a strictly protected species and its presence often dictates conservation strategies and ecological management plans.
Its endemicity and distinctness had never been questioned although it was placed by some botanists at the lower rank of a subspecies or a variety of the common pyramidal orchid. However, some years ago, some prominent European orchidologists failed to accept the difference between the two orchids and have decided that the Maltese pyramidical orchid is not distinct from – and hence a synonym of (same as) – the common pyramidal orchid.
It is a strictly protected species and its presence often dictates conservation strategies and ecological management plans
Consequently, this synonymisation appeared in several global plant databases such at the World Checklist by Kew Botanical Garden, eMonocot, the Plant List, Eu-Nomen (PanEuropean Species Directories infrastructure) and Euro+Plant Medbase to mention some of the most important plant databases.
This simply means that the Maltese endemic orchid was no longer recognised as a distinct orchid and treated with the same conservation status of the common pyramidal orchid which is widely distributed in the Mediterranean region and south Europe.
In other words, this means one species less on the list of Maltese endemic plants.
Here comes the role of a botanical taxonomist, who through scientific investigation determines or suggests to what species and species rank a particular plant should be ascribed and classified.
I undertook this task in 2016. Since abroad, pink forms are found growing spontaneously together with purple forms, foreign botanists assumed that the distinction is insignificant and classified them as synonyms, but the distinction in Malta is much different than the rest of Europe.
Through a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of European Orchids, I defended the Maltese pyramidical orchid by highlighting its distinctive characters from the common pyramidal orchid, although the relationship was closer than expected. The most important argument, apart from the morphological aspect, was the genetic barrier that exists between the two orchids – owing to their different flowering periods, hence making cross-pollination unfeasible – supported by the lack of obvious intermediate forms between the two.
As a result, the Maltese endemic orchid was proposed to remain as a distinct orchid but was ranked as a variety: Anacamptis pyramidalis urvilleana as proposed when consulted by European orchidologists.
A few months later, from the publication of this peer-reviewed article, the scientific community started to accept again the Maltese pyramidal orchid as a good endemic orchid from Malta. As a result, it became catalogued in the World Checklist of Plants by the Kew Botanical Garden and by the International Plants Name Index (IPNI) as a distinct orchid. Other global databases are likely to follow this trend in future updates.
A karyological study can help to understand better the level of distinction and perhaps places the Maltese pyramidal orchid at species level.
Stephen Mifsud is a qualified taxonomist at the ecoGozo rural development directorate within the Ministry for Gozo.