A new flowering plant has been discovered and described for the first time in a scientific work published on the 25th October 2023. This new endemic species, named Limonium lanfrancoi, is only found in a small area within the Maltese archipelago and is unique to the world. It is considered an endangered species with a very restricted distribution in the Maltese Islands.

The Lanfranco’s Sea Lavender, (Limonium lanfracoi, il‑limonju ta’ Lanfranco in Maltese), was described by a team from the University of Malta and the Università di Catania. The Maltese scientists included Ms Dorita Agius who is a lecturer at Junior College and a student at the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Biobanking of the University of Malta. The team from Catania included Professor Salvatore Brullo, who has done extensive studies of the flora of Malta and is considered an authority on the group of plants Limonium.

The flowering plant is a small woody shrub living along a very narrow coastal limestone rocky strip, and is named after Mr Edwin Lanfranco, a valued Maltese botanist and author of several major contributions to the floristic knowledge of the Maltese Islands. It shows close relationships with another coastal flowering shrub unique to the Maltese Islands, the Maltese Sea‑Lavender (Limonium melitense, il‑limonju ta’ Malta), from which it differs genetically and in some other physical features.

The scientific publication also provides a detailed analysis for the four different sea‑lavender species identified in Malta and their conservation status, which also include a third endemic sea‑lavender, also unique to the Maltese Islands, namely the Zerapha’s Sea Lavender (Limonium zeraphae, il‑limonju ta’ Żerafa).

Ms. Dorita Agius noted that,

“’New species often develop in isolated environments, where they change to adapt to the specific environment. Plant species living on the Maltese shoreline are adapted to this harsh environment. We are planning to study these characteristics to be able to improve crop production especially with the steadily increasing global temperatures.”

It is also noted that the new Limonium species is strictly protected in Malta in terms of the Flora, Fauna and Natural Habitats Protection Regulations (SL 549.44) under the Environment Protection Act (Cap. 549). Its collection, picking, sale, transport and export are prohibited, but permits may be granted for selected reasons, including scientific research. The other two endemic sea-lavenders are also protected, and the same restrictions apply. Should more information be required on permitting considerations, more information is available here.

The new species is located in an area protected under the Environment Protection Act (Cap. 549), which is also a site declared as a Natura 2000 site under the EU Habitats Directive. The exact location is not being disclosed due to it highly restricted distribution, so as to safeguard it due to its rarity.

Mr Darrin T Stevens, Director Environment and Resources within the Environment & Resources Authority (ERA) thanked Ms Dorita Agius and her co‑workers for spearheading this work as part of their research and emphasised how such research work is changing our perspective on our rich biodiversity, noting how so many new native species being described from Malta is the last few years.

This research work was carried out in accordance with environmental permits issued by the Environment & Resources Authority. These studies are enabled by research grants from the Malta Council for Science and Technology – Research of Excellence: EDGE (REP-2020-009) and EPOM (REP-2023-033) and IPAS+: CoL (IPAS-2022-005) and CoLII (IPAS-2023-014).

11 November 2023

Photos: Dorita Agius