How to Grow Vetches (Gulbiena): Traditional Maltese Christmas Decorations

Updated on September 11, 2019
kikalina profile image

Kikalina is from Malta and enjoys sharing facts and tidbits about Maltese culture and traditions.

Fully grown light-deprived vetches (gulbiena)
Fully grown light-deprived vetches (gulbiena)

Vetches (Gulbiena or Gurbiena) are grown in Malta to be used as a Christmas decoration. Malta is a tiny island country in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea that is culturally very religious. For the Maltese people, one of the most important Christmas decorations is the crib, which represents the grotto in which baby Jesus was born. According to ancient Maltese tradition, light-deprived vetch seeds are grown over a period of a few weeks and placed next to the statue of the baby Jesus in the manger. This is done to decorate the crib. Over the years, gulbiena was used as a more generic Christmas decoration and is used to decorate houses and churches over the Christmas period. In Malta, vetch seeds are usually planted on the 7th December in order to be at their best for Christmas.

Light deprived vetches grow white and stringy and can also be used for crafts. An example would be growing it as hair or a beard for a toy figure.

Here is an easy guide explaining the few steps involved in growing vetches.

The vetches are placed in a bowl.
The vetches are placed in a bowl.
This is how they look after a 24 hour soak.  They absorbed a lot of water!
This is how they look after a 24 hour soak. They absorbed a lot of water!
Ready to be placed in the dark.
Ready to be placed in the dark.
This is what the gulbiena looks like after 8 days in the dark.
This is what the gulbiena looks like after 8 days in the dark.


  • vetches (vetch seeds are easily available on or in a garden/gardening shop)
  • water
  • a bowl
  • cotton wool or sawdust or tissue paper
  • a small/medium container
  • a dark place.


  • Soaking Them Overnight: Place the vetches in a large bowl and soak for at least 24 hours. The vetches will absorb a lot of water, so make sure they have enough. You will see that overnight they will swell in size.
  • Planting Them: Take a small/medium container (you may want to use a disposable one so you can just throw it away when the Christmas season is over) and pack it up with the cotton wool, saw dust, or tissue paper. Put the vetches on top. Water the vetches. Place in a dark place. Under a bed or in a cupboard would work out fine.
  • Maintenance: Water the vetches every few days making sure the cotton wool never goes dry. Do not expose to light until they are fully grown. They usually take around 3-4 weeks to be fully grown, but within 2 weeks they would still be of reasonable length. When exposed to light, the vetches start turning from white to green; so they should only be taken out of the darkness when they need to be used.

This is what the gulbiena looks like 3 weeks later!
This is what the gulbiena looks like 3 weeks later!

Preparing Gulbiena

Would you be interested in growing gulbiena?

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If you are interested in Malta and Maltese traditions, you may want to try making Kwarezimal or Bigilla which are both traditional Maltese recipes.

Questions & Answers

  • Can I mix gulbiena with other seeds?

    Someone has told me that they mixed lentils in and it worked out fine. However, I never tried this myself.

  • Can you use unplanted Vetch seeds for the following year?

    Yes the seeds are hardy enough!


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    • profile image

      Mary T. Hole 

      3 years ago

      I live in California and every Christmas Reminded me of the Gulbiena. I could not find out the English name for it so I tried the lentils and instead of cotton wool I placed a thin layer of potting mix. I put it in my laundry closet and watered it as I used to water the gulbiena. To my surprise it grew just like the gulbiena. So now every December 8th I plant the lentils and I love it.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Probably adding food colouring would not change their colour unless it is very concentrated. Sometimes a few seeds of canary seeds (common seed used as feed to birds) is added to give that faint reddish colour. After Christmas passes the vetch is not viable to repot in soil but it might have some uses. It could be cut and pressed in newspapers and used the following year for crib decorations such as tents of shops in the crib.

    • kikalina profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Europe

      Yeah it does look a bit like that peach purple. I am now wondering what adding a few drops of food coloring to the water would do to the sprout.

    • peachpurple profile image


      5 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      it looks like our local bean sprouts grow out from green beans, awesome

    • kikalina profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Europe

      Thanks RTalloni! I feel flattered that they interested such a creative person like yourself!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      What an interesting way to get Christmas decorations! :) I'm looking forward to giving this a try. The fibers are beautiful and it would be fun to experiment with ways to use them. Thanks for this look at growing vetches/gulbiena.

    • kikalina profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Europe

      Thanks for dropping by thumbi7. Glad you found this interesting.

    • thumbi7 profile image

      JR Krishna 

      8 years ago from India

      THis information is interesting and totally new to me.

      The pictures are wonderful!

      Thanks for SHARING:)

    • kikalina profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Europe

      Ty Mardi. Christmas is a long way off but it will be here before you know it.

    • Mardi profile image

      Mardi Winder-Adams 

      8 years ago from Western Canada and Texas

      This is really interesting and thank you for a great idea kikalina. I had never heard of vetches before. I am definitely going to grow some for next Christmas and place them around a nativity scene that I love!

    • kikalina profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Europe

      Glad you found it interesting rebeccamealey!

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 

      8 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      very interesting, I have learned something new!

    • kikalina profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Europe

      Glad the gulbiena and Malta was of interest to you marriedwithdebt

    • marriedwithdebt profile image


      8 years ago from Illinois

      I will probably not being growing one, but I do appreciate the Hub and sharing this new information with us.

      I had the pleasure of visiting Malta a few years ago, but it was during the summer. You are right about it being a very religious place.

      I really enjoyed Malta and would recommend it to anyone.

    • kikalina profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Europe

      Just added by fully grown gulbiena picture at the bottom!

    • kikalina profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Europe

      Yeah I remember growing beans as a child too. Was real fun and we used to do it in jars. Incidentally I found out pumpkin seeds sprout easily too.

    • anglnwu profile image


      8 years ago

      This is new to me and I find it interesting. Reminds me of growing beans when I was little. I would like to grow some. Rated up.

    • kikalina profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Europe

      Thank you ....will you be growing some?

    • Seeker7 profile image

      Helen Murphy Howell 

      8 years ago from Fife, Scotland

      A very interesting hub and it's the first time I've heard of vetches - and they do look very christmassy! The video was excellent, I really loved this.

      Great hub + voted up Awesome!!

    • kikalina profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Europe

      Vetches do not need much water but yes the cotton wool has to be wet so they will need to have some water every few days or so. Once they are exposed to light they will start turning green within a few days. I do not think that their lifespan in cotton wool is longer then 2 months or so but I was reading that vetches are sometimes grown to protect other crops from the elements. In that case, when planted in soil, their lifespan is probably a lot longer.

      Never tried to eat them myself and I do not know anyone who tried so I cannot answer you on whether they are edible or not.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      I had never heard of vetches so had to take a look at this hub to learn about them. Very interesting. How long do they last even after turning green when exposed to the light? I am assuming that you need to keep watering them. Are they edible or just decorative?

    • Movie Master profile image

      Movie Master 

      8 years ago from United Kingdom

      I enjoyed reading this interesting hub and the video was lovely, thank you for sharing.

    • kikalina profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Europe

      This is a very old tradition and it is assumed that the gulbiena was placed with the baby Jesus because few other decorations were available at the time!

    • Cyndi10 profile image

      Cynthia B Turner 

      8 years ago from Georgia

      Enjoyed reading about this. I like to be introduced to new practices. What is the history behind placing it with the baby Jesus?

    • moonlake profile image


      8 years ago from America

      How interesting enjoyed this hub.


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