The recent unanimous decision (now reversed) by the Mosta local council to remove 12 ficus trees from the town centre has ignited a heated debate about the fate of these ubiquitous shade trees, which have graced Malta and Gozo’s urban landscape for decades.
While some argue for their removal due to their invasive root systems and potential damage to infrastructure, others lament the loss of these cherished symbols of Malta’s limited urban greenery which are also part and parcel of our memories and identity.
Ficus trees are known for their rapid growth, providing ample shade and a sense of tropical lushness to built-up areas. However, their popularity comes with a drawback.
What is a ficus tree?
The ficus genus boasts an impressive diversity of over 800 species, including the familiar fig tree and the pervasive rubber plant. These trees, shrubs, and vines are characterised by their leathery, glossy leaves that exhibit a captivating range of shapes and sizes, adding to the tree’s visual appeal.
Ficus trees reproduce quickly and easily, making them popular for rainforest restoration and as ornamental plant in homes, parks and other public spaces, and establishments in different parts of the world.
Why are ficus trees so common in urban spaces across the Maltese islands?
Due to their rapid growth rate and ability to mature quickly compared to other trees, ficus trees had become the preferred choice for planting in squares, along roads, and other urban spaces in Malta and Gozo. This rapid growth allowed the trees to swiftly enhance the aesthetic appeal of these spaces while providing a welcome respite from the Mediterranean sun.
What challenges do ficus trees pose?
Ficus trees, though prized for their beauty and shade, can present significant challenges due to their extensive root systems. These roots, capable of growing remarkably large and robust, can cause damage to property, create tripping hazards, and demand ongoing maintenance, posing concerns for homeowners, property managers, and even local governments. The root systems can exert immense pressure on underground infrastructure, including pipes, foundations, and pavements. This pressure can lead to cracks, breaks, and other damage, necessitating costly repairs. Because of these concerns, ficus trees have been entirely excluded from new public greening initiatives.
What provisions are set forth in tree protection regulations?
Although the ficus tree is deemed an alien species, in an effort to strike a balance, regulations mandate that the uprooting of ficus trees from public spaces or of any ficus tree over 50 years old, necessitates a permit from the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA).
When evaluating requests for ficus tree removal, the ERA considers several factors, including the presence of structural damage caused by roots, the fate of the trees (destruction or relocation), and the replacement of removed trees with other species.
How did past policies address the management of ficus trees?
Well before the establishment of the ERA or its predecessor, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA), complaints abounded regarding damage caused by ficus tree roots to roads, pavements, and private property throughout the country. These concerns often resulted in the removal and destruction of these trees, as exemplified by the eradication of ficus trees along the Fgura main road in the 1990s.
In stark contrast to past practices, the ERA now prioritises the transplantation of ficus trees over their destruction whenever possible. This shift reflects the recognition that ficus trees can thrive in suitable locations without causing damage, making transplantation a viable and sustainable solution.
What happened in Mosta?
The ERA’s consent to the Mosta local council’s request for ficus tree replacement with indigenous species was based on its recognition as an integral component of a broader urban regeneration project aimed at improving the town’s environmental and aesthetic appeal.
The Authority acknowledged that the removal of the ficus trees would be mitigated by their transplantation to a suitable location, the replacement of their green canopy with non-invasive indigenous trees, and the availability of nearby trees to provide temporary shelter for the displaced birds.
However, amidst growing public discontent and dismay at the sudden sight of the severely pruned trees ready for uprooting – which had come as a total surprise due to a lack of communication with the community from the local authority’s side – the local council reversed its decision and will maintain the trees in their original location.
How many permits for the removal of ficus trees has the ERA issued over the past two years?
Between 2022 and 2023, the ERA granted permission for the removal of 29 ficus trees, including the 12 in Mosta Square that were ultimately not removed. In almost all instances, the Authority imposed conditions requiring the transplantation of the removed trees to other locations and stipulating compensation for any transplanted trees that died as a result of poor workmanship.
A balanced approach
The ongoing public discussion surrounding ficus trees underscores the importance of a balanced approach to their management. While it is important to address concerns about infrastructure damage, it is equally crucial to recognise the benefits these trees provide, including their significant role in fostering space attachment – the emotional connection individuals have to specific places.
By carefully considering the specific context of each urban greening initiative, we can succeed in making Malta’s built environment more verdant while respecting the community’s enduring bond with their surroundings.
Main photo credit: Ray De Bono