Grow your own Ġulbiena

For a traditional Maltese Christmas celebration, growing ġulbiena (pronounced jool-bee-na) is a must. The Maltese like to abundantly celebrate their Catholic feasts, and Christmas is not an exception. Decorating Jesus’ crib with the noodle-like plant is an essential local Christmas custom.


Photo credit: Stephen Schembri

Translated as “light-deprived vetches”, ġulbiena is often used to decorate Baby Jesus-figurines and the cribs. The roots of the intriguing tradition remain ambiguous, but what’s for sure is that a crib without ġulbiena is not complete.

While most plants flourish with sunlight and nourishment, ġulbiena is actually grown in a dark place. According to a Christian metaphor, they grow tall in darkness as they search for light (how’s that for an affirmation to see us through to the end of 2020?)

Over the years, ġulbiena grew to be used as a more generic Christmas decoration and can be found to decorate houses and churches over the Christmas period. In church it is said to be an angel’s hair, due to the colour and form of the plant.

As the light-deprived vetches grow white and stringy, it is perfect to use for crafts. A fun example would be growing it as hair or a beard for a toy figure. You can create a container that looks like a face, so the angelic hair will grow right out of it!

What you need:
  • Vetch seeds, available in your local garden shop
  • A bowl
  • Cotton wool
  • Water
  • A container
  • A dark cupboard or drawer

Growing ġulbiena is a piece of cake. Grow your own in three easy steps:

Step 1: Soak
Soak the seeds overnight. Fill the bowl with water and leave the vetches in it for at least 24 hours. The vetches will absorb plenty of water as they swell in size, so make sure they have enough.

Step 2: Plant
It’s not what you’d think! To plant vetches, simply line your container with a layer of cotton wool and place the seeds on top. Water the vetches again, then leave the container in a dark place – a cupboard works just fine.

Step 3: Water
Make sure the vetches are watered every few days, and check that the cotton wool doesn’t go dry. Do not expose the vetches to light until they are fully grown. The growing process takes around three to four weeks, but you will be able to see results within two weeks.

That’s it! Have a fun day with your kids as they learn how to grow and take care of a little plant themselves. It will be super exciting to magically see “angel hair” grow out of the seeds. After the vetches have the desired length, you can use them for crafts, or simply place the container under your tree or on a shelf for some magical, natural decoration.

If you do grow your own, or if you have further questions about them, reach out to us on the Mini Malta Facebook group and share your creations with the community!