Friday, January 19, 2018

The Knights of St. John and endangered species protection

"Fungus coccineus Melitensis Typhoides",
from Paolo Boccone, Icones & Descriptiones rariarum plantarum Siciliae, Melitae, Galliae, & Italiae (1674)
A recent trip to Malta took me to the Dwejra on the beautiful island of Gozo, off the coast of which lies the small islet of Fungus Rock. The island is named after the rare "Malta Fungus" (actually a flowering plant) that grows on the top of this rock and was once thought to possess medicinal properties. The Knights Hospitallers exhibit at the former Sacra Infermeria in Valletta explains that the Knights (also known as the Knights of St. John), who ruled Malta from 1530 to 1798, so prized the plant that they often gave gifts of it to kings, noblemen, and distinguished visitors.
Collection was only allowed 15 days after the feast of St. John in May, this allowed the plant to flower and propagate. The increasing demand on this restricted plant led to concern on its possible extinction. Grand Master Pinto decreed the Rock out of bounds in 1746; trespassers risked a three-year spell as oarsmen on the Knights' galleys. He posted a permanent guard there and even built a precarious cable-car basket from the rock to the mainland and also ordered the sides smoothed to remove handholds. Nowadays, Fungus Rock is a nature reserve and the rare plant is still protected by Maltese law.
Fungus Rock at Dwejra, Gozo (G. Mannaerts)

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