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The Mock Privet

Close-ups of Maltese nature plants around us

The Mock Privet, sometimes referred to as the Mediterranean Jasmine Box, is a tree belonging to the olive family, bearing the scientific name Phillyrea latifolia. The name Phillyrea is derived from Greek name Philyra, a sea nymph who, according to a Greek legend, was transformed into this tree by Zeus.

The tree is known by Maltese and Fillirja or Olivastru.

Both are of recent derivation, the former from its scientific name, and the latter from Italian, and is a reference to the resemblance of the tree to the olive.

It is an evergreen tree of about 5-8m height in average, although it may reach heights of 15m in optimal conditions.

The crown is by definition rounded or domed and dense, with the branches being erect when young, but spreading later, and terminated in slender, brownish and hairy twigs.

It flowers between March to June, but mostly in April, at least in Malta. It bears small, bisexual, somewhat sweetly fragrant, 4-petalled greenish-white to white flowers produced at the leaf bases.

The fruits are small fleshy rounded drupes of 7-10mm diameter, bluish-black when ripe (similar to the olive drupe).

It is highly adapted to the Maltese climate and is tolerant of drought and sea winds.

Leaves were used for medicinal purposes, while the leaves and twigs of this tree were used as dunnage to prevent ballast stones from wearing the planking of Roman ships.

This species is now very rare and endangered in the Maltese Islands, with only two native individuals being known to exist in the wild, in two different localities. Consequently, this tree species is strictly protected under national legislation and one should not prune, cut or uproot this plant without prior obtaining the necessary permits from the competent authorities.

In addition, MEPA is also helping to protect this tree and many other maquis species through the designation of Special Areas of Conservation.

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