Never has a mere rock of such a small size had such an interesting story to tell as that known as the Fungus Rock, found in Dwejra, Gozo.
What is the Fungus Rock?
The so-called Fungus Rock was born when an arch collapsed, leaving only a stack standing solo off the coast. The islet is a 60-metre-high pillar of limestone found at the entrance of a circular lagoon in Dwejra that’s actually one of four sinkholes in the area. It is located at 36°02′45″N 14°11′27″E on the west coast of Gozo, the second biggest island in the Maltese archipelago.
What is special about the Fungus Rock?
During the occupation of the Knights of Malta, unauthorised access to the tiny rock was punishable by three years’ oarsmanship in the galleys! Why? Because there grew an endemic fungus which was highly prized for its medicinal properties.
What is the ‘Maltese Fungus’?
Cynomorium coccineum, commonly known as the Maltese Fungus, gave the rock its name, but this nomenclature is a misnomer. The plant was mistaken as a fungus, probably due to its shape, but it is actually a parasitic plant. It is also known as the Maltese Mushroom, Desert Thumb, Red Thumb, Tarthuth (Bedouin) and Suoyang (Chinese).
The plant had a variety of uses in European, Arabian and even Chinese herbal medicine, despite the lack of proof in its medicinal qualities! Among the ailments treated with the Maltese fungus you’ll find a long list: erectile dysfunction, sexually transmitted diseases, irregular menstruation, apoplexy, anaemia, hypertension, vomiting, dysentery and as a styptic dressing for wounds.
For this reason, the Knights of Malta guarded the plant very carefully and it was an honourable gift presented to distinguished visitors to the islands. When Grandmaster Pinto decreed the rock out of bounds in 1746, the walls of the Fungus Rock were artificially scraped to make access from the sea impossible; there was only one authorised access - via a funicular. Meanwhile, Dwejra Tower would guard the islet as well as serving as a watch tower against enemy attack.
Another irony is that the plant was not endemic to the Fungus Rock at all. While rare, the plant is also found in other parts of Malta, such as in Dingli. Not only that, it is not even endemic to the Maltese Islands! The plant is found all over the Mediterranean region extending as far east as Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The true endemic inhabitant: the lizard of the Fungus Rock
What is endemic to the Fungus rock is a particular subspecies of Maltese lizard. Podarcis filfolensis ssp. Generalensis has a reddish belly and blue-like flanks. Its name derives from the Maltese name for the Fungus Rock: il-Gebla tal-General (English: The General's Rock).
A rock protected for centuries!
Today, the Fungus Rock is a nature reserve. How odd to think that this tiny rock would be protected for almost 300 years and will continue to be so! Still, it is just one of the many attractions in Dwejra, a truly extraordinary location in Gozo.