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Extension > Extension in your Community > Le-sueur > Master Gardeners > Articles > The Mystery of the Maltese Mushroom

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The Mystery of the Maltese Mushroom

Photo by: Shane Bugeja

When I visited the Mediterranean archipelago of Malta last summer, the weather and landscape differed so much from Minnesota that I might as well been transported to another galaxy. I distinctly remember looking up the 10-day weather forecast and being shocked there was not even a 1% chance of rain on any day listed. The plants on the island have never heard of 500-year floods or bursting rivers. Instead, the native trees and herbs deal with salty ocean spray, season long drought, and thin topsoil. In this harsh environment, Maltese plants have several tricks under their leaves when it comes to survival. One plant in particular is not only a survivor, but has a fascinating, strange history. Even its name shows how peculiar it is, Cynomorium coccineum, also known as the Maltese mushroom.

While not just constrained to the country’s islands, the Maltese mushroom’s reproductive parts do indeed look like a fungus—similar to a common stinkhorn (Phallus impudicus) or maybe even a morel mushroom (Morchella esculenta). Ancient peoples saw only this plant’s reddish, scaly, cone-shaped flower head emerge from the ground—with no leaf to be seen. However, it always seemed to grow near another plant. Usually, this was a weedy aster called golden samphire (Limbarda crithmoides).

Later on, naturalists determined that the Maltese mushroom was no mushroom at all, but instead was a parasitic plant. Living mostly underground, this “mushroom” fed off of the sugars from the hapless samphire. Given the often hostile climate and soil, this tactic made sense. Plant parasites are not unusual. Even in Minnesota we have several species which follow a similar survival strategy. These include dodders (Cuscuta species), wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), and eastern dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium pusillum).

Maltese mushroom’s flower head. Photo by: Hans HillewaertYet, the Maltese mushroom can claim many uses aside from pestering its neighbors. Extracts made from the plant were used to dye cotton. Also, its underground stem and flower head were occasionally eaten. The taste was noted to be quite astringent, drying out your mouth. This “drying” effect may have led people to believe this plant could heal dysentery or act as a poultice to stop bleeding. Soon, the plant was highly prized and unsustainably collected. The Knights of St. John, a religious military order who ruled the island for much of the 16th and 17th centuries, imposed harsh punishments for unsanctioned harvests. This allowed the knights to essentially run a cartel, allowing its use only at sanctioned hospitals. Maltese mushrooms were also gifted to foreign dignitaries, a symbol of both the island and the order.

One location in Malta, near the fishing town of Dwejra, was known to have numerous Maltese mushrooms. Called “Fungus Rock”, this islet is difficult to climb, and in fact had one side purposely carved to deter poachers. If you were caught by the knights, your sentence could include prison or years of rowing a galley, a job that frequently ended in death.

Today, the Maltese mushroom is still extremely rare on the island, even with efforts from the government to protect it. Despite its parasitic nature, the Maltese mushroom deserves preservation. While its use as a primary treatment for serious ailments fell out of use, the plant has recently garnered significant scientific attention.

In the last few years, the Maltese mushroom has been reexamined for its potential as a cancer treatment, natural dye, and as a potent antioxidant source. Truly, the mysteries of the Maltese mushroom are like the plant itself—far more than what you see on the surface. That’s the beauty of horticulture: plants reveal themselves to be as complex as the people who study them.

Works Cited:

  • Jabli, M. (2018). Extraction of eco-friendly natural dyes from tradescantia pallida purpurea and cynomorium coccineum growing naturally in Tunisia. Trends in Textile Engineering & Fashion Technology, 1(1).
  • Lanfranco, G. G., FBES, F., & MB'OU, F. (1960). Cynomorium coccineum Linn. A Maltese historical plant. J Malta Hist Soc, 3, 53-70.
  • Li, X., Sdiri, M., Peng, J., Xie, Y., & Yang, B. B. (2020). Identification and characterization of chemical components in the bioactive fractions of Cynomorium coccineum that possess anticancer activity. International Journal of Biological Sciences, 16(1), 61.
  • Mifsud, S. (2018). “Cynomorium coccineum.” Malta Wild Plants. http://www.maltawildplants.com/CYNM/Cynomorium_coccineum.php
  • Nickrent, D. (2018). “Cynomoriaceae Lindl.” Southern Illinois University Carbondale. https://parasiticplants.siu.edu/Cynomoriaceae/
  • Zucca, P., Rosa, A., Tuberoso, C., Piras, A., Rinaldi, A., Sanjust, E., ... & Rescigno, A. (2013). Evaluation of antioxidant potential of “Maltese Mushroom” (Cynomorium coccineum) by means of multiple chemical and biological assays. Nutrients, 5(1), 149-161.

Photos

  • Dwejra Bay and Fungus Rock. Photo by: Shane Bugeja

  • Maltese mushroom’s flower head. Photo by: Hans Hillewaert