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Shakespeare’s shrub

The sweet briar rose, The Bard’s favourite species, now saved from local extinction

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” wrote William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet in 1600.

The world this year marked the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. Roses are the most-often mentioned flower in the texts of Shakespeare, who was probably influenced to some extent by their link to the Tudor dynasty as well as the flower’s own obvious merits.

The sweet briar rose at Wied il-Lunzjata. Photo: Stephen MifsudThe sweet briar rose at Wied il-Lunzjata. Photo: Stephen Mifsud

Sweet briar rose (rosa rubignosa) was Shakespeare’s favourite species of rose. Blooming with fragrant single pink flowers and followed by colourful hips that give the plant additional autumn and winter interest, locally, the rosa rubignosa species only occurs in the fertile valley of Wied il-Lunzjata.

Running between the rocky uplands of Kerċem and Fontana, the valley streams west towards Xlendi where its watercourse flushes at Xlendi Bay.

The shallow valley is lined with lush fields, fruit trees and water canals. Parts of its valley bed were once covered by very ancient stone slabs, some of which are still in place, indicating that the valley was once maintained and cultivated by our ancestors, possibly to make best use of its natural water.

Wied il-Lunzjata is the only valley in Gozo that is supplied by permanent freshwater springs and forms a continuous watercourse all year round – hence it provides the only dwelling in Gozo (together with Xlendi) to the endemic and protected freshwater crab (potamon fluviatile subsp. lanfrancoi, il-qabru). Its natural water is essential to the ecology of this valley and the surrounding agricultural produce.

It is a non-climbing shrub that drops most of its leaves in winter

Locally, the rosa rubiginosa species only occurs in this valley. The species is characterised by baby-pink, single flowers with a white centre, slender hooked thorns and pinnate leaves giving off an apple-like fragrance due the presence of an oily substance secreted by translucent glands.

The rose resurged after maintenance by EcoGozo.The rose resurged after maintenance by EcoGozo.

It is a non-climbing shrub that drops most of its leaves in winter, although some may persist in mild winters. The flowers appear between May and June and, later in the year, it forms red inedible berries known as hips. In its native range, hips are usually opened and consumed by birds which facilitate seed dispersion but, in Gozo, this rose had only persisted vegetatively.

It is presumed to be a relic of old cultivation which had adorned the valley for many decades. Possibly, it had been introduced by the British since, during World War II, soldiers used to take tea made from rose hips to get their supply of Vitamin C.

While surveying the biodiversity of this valley last March, I found this rose to be seriously damaged. Consequently, EcoGozo within the Ministry for Gozo took all conservation measures to salvage the species. These measures included sheltering of the rose from wind to protect the emerging shoots, watering at regular intervals during the warm months of May and June and occasional supplement of nutrients.

As they say, nature is full of miracles and the sweet briar rose has recovered and is currently reaching a height of 120 centimetres.  Hopefully, it will set flowers next year.

To improve the conservation of this species, there are plans to propagate the shrub using appropriate methods, introducing it in adequate places and parks in Malta and Gozo.

The author is an employee at EcoGozo Rural Development Directorate, Ministry for Gozo.

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