Spring arrives early in Malta, and with it a fierce competition is set in motion. From millimetres above the soil to lofty two-metre heights, wild plants advertise their wares in a dazzling flower variety of shapes, sizes, colours and tricks. As marketing strategies go, wild flowers top the list of ingenuity in their solutions to that all-time challenge of beating the competition.
Fast and furious
In our dry Mediterranean climate, spring hardly lasts a month, making the window of opportunity very narrow for our wild annuals that must complete their life cycle before the mercury climbs and dries the life out of them.
To most people, wild plants are “ħaxix ħażin” (weeds). As our lives move increasingly indoors, we become more and more attuned to straight lines, hard outlines and gleaming floors.
Our children, who are constantly exposed to urban environments at school and at home, slowly but surely grow a lifelong prejudice against wild nature, as they follow our lead into a sanitised world where we raze our wild plants and till our soil until all is uniform and we are placated.
Spring is a great time to strengthen your children’s bond with nature through the wonders of our wild flowers. You will easily find them growing on disturbed ground at roadsides, in fallow fields, even in unbuilt plots.
A herbaceous annual doesn’t spend time and effort giving itself woody stems or branches like trees do. Rather, it lives fast and furious, growing its leafy greenness while the winter rain lasts, flowering as the weather warms up, and in a last gasp, giving birth to the seeds that will germinate next autumn.
Looks easy, right? But behind the neat life cycle we are so familiar with, lurks a bag of tricks and treats.
Tricks and treats
Over millions of years, flowering plants have developed ways of getting insects to do their dirty work. This involves making sure the male genetic package – pollen – is carried from one flower to the female part of a similar flower for that magic-wand moment that kick starts the seed process. Same as human babies, right? But this is where the similarity ends.
Being rooted to the ground, plants must employ the services of an intermediary: pollinators. That wonderful swathe of colours we see in a field of flowers is nothing short of flower signals, a palette of colours the pollinating insect cannot miss, carefully chosen to contrast with their background and with the hues of their neighbours. Each plant type must know its clients and, over millennia, flowers have changed and refined their colour signals to match their pollinators’ preferences.
You may be thinking that most of our wild flowers look pretty much the same – smallish and yellow. But have a second look and notice that not all yellows are equal. Let your discerning eye find the bright, highlighter yellow of the cape sorrel; the matt, deep yellow of the sow thistle; the saturated, golden yellow of the crown daisy; or the cleverly contrasting yellow centre against the white petals of the narcissus. On the red spectrum find the blood red sulla, the orange poppy, or the deep purple mallow.
Train your child’s eye to spot these differences and play games guessing which flower you’re describing.
But why do insects go for pollen in the first place? Once agan, plants are at their tricks: pollen is edible to many insects, so insects go for the pollen as a snack, not out of the goodness of their hearts to render plants a service. But pollen is also sticky, so any hairy insect that tucks into flower dust is going to get covered in the sticky stuff.
Once the insect buzzes off to continue its meal on a neighbouring flower, some of the pollen falls off … right onto the female part of the next flower – bingo! But with so much competition, plants have come up with the ultimate treat for making sure pollinators don’t pass them by: nectar. This sugary water is a precious energy drink offered up by the plant to make sure pollinators visit regularly for a sugar hit.
A field of wild flowers is a veritable supermarket of competing producers. These tricks and treats are just the tip of the iceberg of the fascinating ways our wild plants have found their niche to ensure the survival of their species. As you take a break with your children down a countryside lane, see how many of our wonderful wild flower tricks you can discover as they go about their mating business.
Desirée Falzon is a naturalist and field teacher with BirdLife Malta.
Join BirdLife Malta
For more nature experiences for you and your children, join BirdLife Malta’s family events at www.birdlifemalta.org/events or become a member and join their family of nature lovers at https://birdlifemalta.org/become-member/.
For more Child stories, follow this link.