Check out the literature on the most beautiful Maltese gardens, and you will be promised roses, fountains and sometimes even peacocks. San Anton Gardens are among the best known on the islands. The leader of the knights who once ruled Malta had a palace there. Later it was occupied by the British governor and today it is the official residence of the President of Malta. Of the gardens at San Anton, the Blue Guide remarks that they are the biggest and best that Malta has to offer, then adds a cautionary note: “Do not expect riots of colourful flowers or even an extensive arboretum.”
San Anton is popular with visitors, as are the Upper Barrakka Gardens in Valletta. The gardens give welcome respite from Mediterranean heat. But as visitors seek shade, serenity, and an instagrammable view on arid Malta, few ever really ponder what the indigenous plants of Malta are really like. At Upper Barrakka, botany is a side show with visitors focusing on the wonderful view and the sculptures within the garden, of which the most striking is Sciortino’s playful trio of Parisian streetchildren inspired by a Victor Hugo novel.
Malta’s winters are damp and rainy. Porous limestone rocks aid surface drainage, but eventually the water reappears in seasonal surface streams, the water cascading down towards the bigger valleys. Spring is awash with colour, as wild flowers hurry to seed before merciless heat begins. And then there are summers — the air heavy with salty moisture, but not a drop from the sky, and the scorching sun that turns the islands monotonously beige until autumn rains bring verdant life back. How does one maintain consistency in a garden with these seasons?
Access to water has been essential, as exotic flowers and bushes need help to withstand brutal summers. But Malta is one of the most water-scarce places in the world. In his Letters from the Mediterranean, the 19th-century British navy officer Edward Blaquière lamented that the main island of the Malta archipelago, by then already landscaped to some degree by the Knights of Malta and by the British administration, was “entirely destitute of picturesque beauty.” True, there had been efforts to promote greenery through introduced species but all in all Blaquière thought that Maltese garden culture would benefit from a nudge from the colonisers.