Remember the last time your house burned down? Those emblems on all the badges, helmets, and fire trucks are based upon the Maltese Cross. With all the devastating fires in the West the past couple years, we figured we'd showcase this old-school ornamental named for a symbol shared by many brotherhoods (and sisterhoods) dedicated to protection.
According to the Lombard Fire Fighter's Union in Illinois, firefighting agencies worldwide adopted the Maltese cross in honor of a Crusade battle in which the Knights of the Order of St. John came up against the first recorded use of naphtha—a highly-flammable petroleum-based goo—in European-involved warfare. Let's just say they weren't the ones chucking the glass-filled balls, or the flaming torches used to light them.
When their oil-covered brethren caught fire, the knights risked great pain, death, and horror to rescue them and a legend was born; for four hundred years, one offshoot of the brotherhood ruled the island of Malta, while the remainder set up shop in Jerusalem and became associated with medicine and emergency care. Both orders shared the emblem now known for courage and bravery and modern firefighters certainly live up to the honor today.
Malta Uncovered explains:
Its eight points denote the eight obligations or aspirations of the knights, namely to live in truth, have faith, repent one's sins, give proof of humility, love justice, be merciful, be sincere and wholehearted, and to endure persecution.
Since Maltese Cross flowers have an extra two points on a fifth "arrowhead" or petal, we feel it's appropriate to add "tolerate heat and sponsor chili cook-offs."
Native Range and History
Maltese Cross plants are native to Eastern Europe and western Asia, but they quickly naturalized in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and North African regions before coming to the New World with early colonists. Legend says that the Knights of Malta brought them to England from Jerusalem during the Crusades. Thomas Jefferson grew the perky ornamental (ok, well, his slaves did) at his famous Monticello estate gardens.
Some gardeners believe there was an earlier strain that had only four petals, making it more closely resemble the symbolic cross, but we haven't been able to confirm that theory in reputable botanical sources.
Lychnis chalcedonica has many popular names, including:
- Jerusalem cross
- Tears of Christ
- Common rose campion (not to be confused with true rose campion, which looks quite different in spite of similar growth habit)
- Knight's cross
- Scarlet lychnis (the name by which it was first known and marketed in colonial times)
- Silene chalcedonica (a less-used Genus name)
Maltese Cross is a member of the carnation (Caryophyllaceae) family. Lychnis is Greek for lamp, and the specific name refers to the ancient Greek colonial city Chalcedon (now part of modern Turkey). Nearly a millennia after its founding, the city hosted the Council of Chalcedon which, in a nutshell, was the G20 summit of Christian religious leaders who met to set down some ground rules for doctrine and (we like to imagine) spectacularly divine hat fashion.
There isn't much scientific or ethnobotanical data to indicate that Lychnis chalcedonica has an important role in herbal medicine, but at least one study found that a short course of L. chalcedonica extract reduced bleeding disorders and stabilized EEG activity in mice. Since the mice didn't go paws-up, we can guess that Maltese Cross is safe around pets and kids; we haven't found any warnings on our usual go-to reference sites. There is, however, a lily with the same name that will send you running to the bathroom if you happen to eat any of its parts.
Maltese Cross in the Garden
Just like firefighters, Maltese Cross is a rugged plant. Unlike firefighters, you don't have to feed it much, and the plant lacks an obvious association with water hoses. If your summers are on the mild side, Lychnis chalcedonica tolerates drought and intermittent watering. Do give it an extra splash during the hottest days of summer.
L. chalcedonica grows upright from basal clumps. The four-inch flower clusters, which can be fire engine red, safety orange, screaming-baby-born-in-a-car-on-the-way-to-the-hospital pink, or code white, perch on top of tall, leafy, deep green stalks. Expect anywhere from 10 to 50 flowers on each compact cluster.
Maltese Cross' foliage is, on its own, quite attractive. Individual leaves are glossy, narrow, and spear-shaped with smooth edges, and they grow in opposite pairs on each node of the plant's stem.
The Maltese Cross flower has five individual petals, each with a deep notch in the outer edge. The similarity to the symbol of heroism justifies the plant's most well-known common name.
- USDA Hardiness Zones: Perennial in zones 3 through 10. Yep, 3 to 10. Some pros will even squeak the range down to zone 2.
- Sunlight Preferences: Full sun with tolerance for partial shade, in which they'll grow taller and leggier.
- Moisture Requirements: Moist soil until established; intermittent watering thereafter.
- Soil Preferences: Well-drained, loose soil. Tolerates most soil types. Its ideal pH is between 6.0 and 6.5, but it can handle variances.
- Plant Height: Maltese Cross grows 2 to 4 feet tall.
- Plant Width: Expect an overall spread from 10 to 18 inches.
Maltese Cross has an average growth rate. Newly-planted specimens might not bloom until mid- to late summer, but in their second and following seasons, they'll be ready to burn down your garden early in the season and carry on until fall. In the hottest climates, you'll likely have a mid-summer break in the flowering period. Deadheading encourages prolonged and prolific bloom periods and reduces or eliminates re-seeding. They're not the longest-lived perennials around, but they'll easily replace themselves if left to do their own thing.
Don't coddle your Maltese Cross plants. Too much fertilizer will make them grow too tall and fall over (lodge). If you plant them in a windy spot, you might need to stake them but usually, they're best left alone. If a plant keels over, it may grow new shoots from the base.
Few ornamentals are as disease- and pest-resilient as Maltese Cross. Provided you meet their basic requirements, they're good to go. Deer don't like them, and neither do rabbits. Butterflies, bees, moths, and even hummingbirds, on the other hand, love love LOVE Lychnis chalcedonica.
Plant Maltese Cross if you're going for that traditional "cottage garden" look; the English are absolutely nutty over these plants and have been since the Middle Ages. Choose them as borders, beds, or foundation plantings. Plant them out by your mailbox or anywhere else out of reach of your regular irrigation scheme. Mass plantings allow individual plants to support their neighbors and create a stunning blanket of fiery explosions. Due to their smaller footprint and columnar growth habit, Maltese Cross is often used as a "filler" specimen and can hide the fading foliage of early spring bulbs.
They're not the best container plants (nor are they the worst) but Maltese Cross' long stems and durability make them fantastic cut flowers. Are you trying to score a date with a hot firefighter? Show up at the firehouse with a box of homemade cookies and a bouquet of Maltese Cross. Better yet, gift them with a potted plant start. At the very least (unless your cookies suck or nobody at the fire station likes gardening) you'll get a better response time if your cat gets stuck in a tree.
Growing Maltese Cross from Seed
Small, heart-shaped L. chalcedonica seeds don't require pre-sowing treatment, but they do require light to germinate. Whether you start them indoors or in their permanent outdoor location, remove any clumps and organic debris from the surface. Amend your outdoor planting spot with well-aged compost to improve drainage and give the growing plants the only extra nutrient boost they'll need in their lifespan.
- When to Plant Outdoors: Sow your Maltese Cross seeds outside as soon as daytime soil temperatures reach at least 65°F and there's no chance of a last spring frost.
- When to Plant Indoors: Start under grow lights 6 to 8 weeks prior to the last frost.
- Seed Depth: Sprinkle or gently press seeds on the top of fine, moist soil.
- Seed Spacing: Plant or thin 12 inches apart. Close plantings help prevent Maltese Cross from lodging in exposed areas.
- Days to Germination: Seedlings 14 to 21 days at temperatures between 65°F and 70°F.
If you’re growing Maltese Cross from seed and you start your seeds indoors, we recommend using biodegradable peat pots or CowPots so as not to disturb the plant's roots. And as always with smaller plant seeds, water gently with a hand sprayer or the mist setting on your hose nozzle so as not to drive the seeds into the soil. Scattered seeds in uncultivated gardens will have a lower germination rate than those planted individually on smooth soil.