The Visitors’ Centre and Botanical Garden “Ġnien il-Pjanti Maltin” is a site dedicated to the conservation of and the scientific research of local plants, and also to the education on these plants. The site is located in Lija, within the precinct of the Plant Biotechnology Centre, and is administered by the Plant Protection Directorate.
Historically, the site has its origin in the time of Grandmaster Antoine de Paule’s rule of the Order of St. John (1623-1636). He developed the site through the construction of three underground water reservoirs to supply water to his orchards and fountains at nearby San Anton palace and gardens. Later during the British colonial period, the Civil Commissioner of Malta Sir Alexander Ball enlarged the place and embellished it with a garden. It used to be administered by one of his leading commandants and thus became known as ‘Tal-Kmand’ (short for ‘Kmandant’).
Through the EAFRD Project on the Study and Sustainable Conservation of Varieties of Local Plants, the site has now been converted into a visitors’ centre, serving as a hub to host visitors, and is comprised of a reception area, a media centre and a conference hall, providing energy-efficient interpretation facilities. Here the visitor can enjoy interactive exhibitions together with audio-visual presentations on various botanical themes. It also serves as a centre for organised training, lectures, workshops, meetings and other functions specially designed for different visitor groups.
This place can be considered as a museum of plants of local conservation value in nature and agriculture, displaying the rich diversity of local wild plants, and an array of local landraces and varieties of fruiting trees and crops.
Sustainable features of the centre include the installation of a solar photovoltaic system and rainwater harvesting in underground reservoirs to be used for the irrigation of the botanical garden.
The botanical garden holds a living collection of indigenous wild plants together with specimens of local landraces and varieties of fruiting trees and crops. The botanical garden is divided into five sections representing different landscapes of the Maltese rural environment:
- Section 1 displays a selection of floral elements typical of steppes and disturbed ground, bearing mostly herbaceous (non-woody) perennial and annual grasses, bulbous and tuberous plants, and many other spring-blooming annual or biennial thistles, legumes, crucifers and umbellifers. Some of these herbaceous plants may undergo a dormancy period in summer and therefore only appear during the wet season;
- Section 2 features a variety of low to medium-sized perennial shrubs characteristic of garrigue, rupestral communities and coastal wetlands. These species are notable for their morphological adaptations to thrive in a dry and/or saline environment and include a collection of most of our local endemic plants;
- Section 3 presents a multitude of high shrubs and small trees, which constitute the local maquis habitats;
- Section 4 is dedicated to specimens of trees, which in nature form local woodlands;
- Section 5 holds interesting plants associated with agriculture, which is further subdivided into two parts. One part is dedicated to local varieties of fruit trees, some of which are archaeophytic (species not originally native to Malta but introduced in ancient times). The other part includes examples of local agricultural crops together with their wild relatives, for comparative purposes, providing an insight into the effects of artificial selection over the centuries. A herb garden is also present, exhibiting various aromatic plants traditionally used as culinary condiments or in medicinal preparations.
The final design of the botanical garden took into account the natural environmental conditions of the various habitats and the ecological requirements of the characteristic species.
Plants adapted to dry conditions were located in areas exposed to the sun, while plants typical of damp habitats were placed in shaded areas. Riparian trees, which naturally grow in valleys, have been positioned in the shallowest area formed by a gentle incline, where rainwater is directed to flow. Trees formerly present in the old garden were also integrated within the present design.
The botanical garden is traversed by a circular footpath passing through the various sections and designed in a manner to control the visitors’ flow. It also features a number of seating benches at regular intervals along the footpath where one can further admire the beauty of this garden.
Adjoining the visitors’ centre and botanical garden, other ancillary facilities include a seed laboratory, a diagnostic laboratory for viral and bacterial plant diseases, a plant tissue culture laboratory, computer-controlled glasshouses and administrative offices.