Type ‘home’ in any search engine and you will get at least 20 idioms or phrases associated with comfort, reassurance or stability. The very word conjures up feelings of security. Not so for the millions of plants and animals that call the garrigue their home.
Garrigue habitat – xagħri in Maltese – is a dry, rocky terrain largely forged by centuries of human exploitation of the land and natural weathering processes.
When our ancestors cut down trees for firewood and tools, they unwittingly caused Malta’s topsoil to wash away into the sea because there were no longer tree roots to hold it in place.The now-exposed rock eventually became severely eroded, giving it the typical sharp, pock-marked rock face of the garrigue habitat today.
Adapting to extremes
Sharing the wonders of the garrigue with your child is a very different experience from enjoying the picturesque beauty of a green landscape. The focus here is not on the spectacular, but on the clever adaptations wildlife has evolved to combat the extreme conditions of its rugged home.
Go for a family walk in a garrigue area – Dingli Cliffs, Majjistral Park, Ħal Far, Ħaġar Qim or Ta’ Ċenċ would be ideal for this because there are footpaths you can use without stepping on the habitat.
Notice thick, bright green shoots breaking the soil surface between rocks at this time of year. These are sea squill, plants that have evolved an underground bulb as an energy reservoir where they lie in wait for the autumn rains while the summer sun bakes the surface.
Dormancy coupled with underground storage is a trick shared by many garrigue plants. Arguably the most renown of these are orchids, little plant gems that regale us with intricate, miniature flowers in winter and spring.
Having a bulb is not the only way around the dry shallow soil pockets of this exposed landscape.
Metaphorically speaking, leaves are like taps, as their myriad microscopic holes “leak” water while they go about their daily business of making food through photosynthesis. Solution: small leaves that reduce the plant’s exposure to the desiccating sun.
Of course, this also means that your prime food-producing organs are limited in how much growth energy they can provide. But in a harsh landscape it pays to remain close to the ground.
Leading your child to appreciate “small” may not be easy, especially after the diet of spectacular wildlife and superlatives many television documentaries feed us. One way of getting there is to help your child be aware of how they are feeling, physcially, and imagine how plants have to sit out the heat or cold, rain or shine.
As you open a window of appreciation, look for the azure stonecrop: a tiny paragon of survival tactics. This pocket plant can grow in millimetres of silt on rock depressions, thanks to two specialisations: tiny water-filled leaves, and a “sunscreen” that gives the plant its striking red colour.
Prolong the pleasure of your garrigue walk by creating odour-memories. These powerful stimulations trigger sensory areas of our brain that evoke associations your child will recall throughout their life. Many garrigue shrubs are aromatic. Gently press a leaf between your fingers to release its oils, without cutting (and killing) it.
Get a load of the pizza-like fragrance of the Mediterranean thyme, the nose-wrinkling smell of the fringed rue, the pungent odour of the pitch clover, or the floral aroma of the yellow germander. Ironically, these scents are the plant’s defence against leaf-munching herbivores, which are put off by the strong taste.
Garrigue may look bleak, but amazingly, this very Mediterranean habitat hosts hundreds of flowering plants that manage to grow in the soil trapped among the rocks. Here the shrubs, bulbs and annuals go through their life cycles, generating two vital elements for other biodiversity: shelter, and organic debris.
Biodiversity under and around garrigue shrubs is like a jigsaw puzzle with a thousand miniature pieces. Animals here tend to be small and to have nondescript colours. Sit a while and you will soon get attuned to life among the rocks.
The first obvious signs of life will be the black, yellow, white and shades of green “stains” on the rocks. These are lichens, living things with amazingly long lifespans and an extremely slow growth rate of 1-2mm a year! Lichen nutrition comes solely from the atmosphere as they have no roots.
You may find shells of the Pomatias snail – the ‘gnocchi’”’-like snail that has an actual door to its shell. Woodlice eat plant debris and keep tightly to the shade under bushes, while harvestmen and spiders seek them out for food. Scorpions slip under loose stones to avoid the heat, emerging at night to forage for small beetles and other invertebrates.
Ants build colonies among the roots of plants, gathering seeds and the occasional dead beetle. If you visit the garrigue at dusk, you may chance upon a cat snake slithering among the stones, searching for the small animals that eke out an existence in this rocky habitat.
Continue your garrigue stroll in a few weeks’ time and the autumn migrant birds will have arrived. Listen for the common sonechat’s swi-CH swi-CH! as it perches on a tall plant stalk and scans the air for flying insects. If you see a grey, buff and white bird with black face and wings you’ve spotted a northern wheatear.
Harsh habitats go through dramatic changes as the living things in it make the best of seasonal opportunities. To make your child’s garrigue experience complete, make sure you’ve gone through its symphony of moods.
Witness the autumn and winter plant growth, spring’s profusion of scented flowers and carpets of purple Mediterranean thyme, and summer’s regiments of tall, white sea squill flower spikes.
Just as with other habitats, take your time to discover its beauty, perhaps even more so, as the garrigue keeps its secrets close to its chest in the small pockets of life among its stark rocky landscape.
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/.
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