The Malta Independent 26 May 2019, Sunday

A new endemic species to Malta: the Maltese Ferule

Friday, 4 January 2019, 13:01 Last update: about 6 months ago

A new endemic species has been described from the Maltese Islands, this being unique to our islands, the Environment and Resources Authority said today. This species, known as the Maltese Ferule or il-ferla in Maltese, has been first described scientifically as Ferula melitensis, in the recent scientific publication, Phytotaxa, published on 10 December 2018.

Mix-up with the Common Ferule

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This species is unique to the Maltese Islands; and hence is endemic and differs significantly, both morphologically and genetically from the other European and African ferule species, but showing closer links with the Tunisian Ferule (Ferula tunetana), which is also absent from Malta. It is interesting to note that the Tunisian and Maltese Ferules were both originally thought to be the Common Ferule (Ferula communis), with which our new species was previously confused.

Essentially, the Maltese plant is stockier than the Common Ferule, which is absent from Malta, with clear differences in the leaves, flowers, flowering period, fruits and seedlings.

The species is quite commonin Malta, where it grows in different soils and habitats, including local xagħri, fallow or abandoned fields, countryside road verges and xeric grasslands (these being typical of our very dry climate).

Practices and Uses

Traditionally, the species was used for the treatment of dysentery or the treatment of skin infections. However, such uses are discouraged, as the plant can be poisonous if inappropriate dosage is employed.

In addition, dried stalks were used to sharpen razor blades or as a substitute of ‘firewood’; indeed, the dried pith was sometimes also used as a slowly-burning tinder.

The ferules are also known to produce compounds that have diverse pharmacological effects, including antibiotic/antimicrobial and compounds used in the treatment of cancer. Indeed, the medicinal potential of these compounds is considered as high, with ferulenol being considered as a lead compound in drug discovery.

Scientific Significance

Apart from the intrinsic value of a new species unique to the Maltese Islands, this species also sheds more information on biogeography (the study of the distribution of species and ecosystems in geographic space and through geological time), in that they confirm the North African affinity of some of our unique flora. The origins of the Maltese Ferule are currently assumed to be due to geographic isolation from North Africa as a result of alternating sea-levels in the period between 5.96 to 5.33 million years ago. This is not the first plant species to confirm such link, since many unique endemic Maltese species show North African affinities, like the Maltese Salt Tree (Darniella melitensis; is-siġra tal-irmied) and the Maltese Fleabane (Chiliadenus bocconei; it-tulliera ta’ Malta).

Research on Biodiversity and Current Protection

The Maltese Fennel is a recent discovery from 2018; confirming the recurrent need of obtaining more information on Malta’s native and endemic biodiversity. The find was made by a team from the Universities of Catania, Palermo and Cagliari, with the lead of Professor Salvatore Brullo of the University of Catania. Prof. Brullo is a lead botanist in the Mediterranean region, and is well renowned in local botanical sphere as he has studied and described many Maltese endemic species.

It is also noted that the Maltese Ferule and many endemic species are protected in terms of the Flora, Fauna and Natural Habitats Protection Regulations (SL 549.44) under the Environment Protection Act (Cap. 549). Should more information be required on permitting considerations, more information is available from https://era.org.mt/en/Pages/Environmental-Permitting-Services.aspx.

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