Other July pages: • Wayside flowers • Hedgerow, fruit and berries • Birds • Butterflies and insects • Weather
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July is another good month for downland flowers: favoured slopes can seem like a garden, with a rich diversity of species within a few square metres. In drier summers the displays are at their best at the start of the month but in wetter ones they can remain good even at the month's end.
Common downland flowers at the start of the month include white hedge bedstraw and yellow lady's bedstraw (the former thinning from mid month onward, the latter lasting a bit longer). Also birdsfoot trefoil, whose tiny yellow flowers look a bit like scrambled egg.
Note too the purple tubes of self-heal, the pink trumpets of field bindweed, and the very delicate light purple flowers of vervain, which blend easily into the background. The ethereal yellow spikes of agrimony look from a distance like strokes from an artist's brush. Yellow-wort is a very distinctive yellow-flowered plant most noticeable for the way its stem grows up through the middle of its leaves, and whose flowers only open in sunshine (and not even then, sometimes). Common century makes little pink clumps.
Common ragwort (poisonous to horses and so pulled up by some landowners) is also very common on the downs, and as the month progresses, knapweed, with its purple thistle-like flower comes out in great quantities. Some true thistles can also be seen on downland - for example creeping thistle, marsh thistle, and musk thistle with its distinctive nodding head, as well as spear thistle on downland verges.
Field scabious is another very common flower of downland in July, with its mauve blooms much lovelier than its rather ugly name: like knapweed, they build in intensity as the month goes on. Much more rarely you might see lovely blue round-headed rampion. In addition you can see the golden flowers of St John’s wort, from which the popular depression cure comes. They last till the end of month in places, though in general they tend to fade mid month.
July downland is a good place to find wild herbs. Early in the month you see wild thyme (only faintly aromatic) which makes mats of tiny purple flowers. Mainly from mid month (though with the occasional one early in the month) you get the pink flowers of marjoram, whose leaves also have the familiar oregano smell, and wild basil, whose flowers are tiny pink trumpets from pincushion ruffs at intervals up its stem.
Looking closer in the grass and you can see restharrow – a delicate pink pea variant that was nevertheless strong enough to stop a harrow, hence its name. Note also the tiny yellow globes of black medick (whose name refers to its seed, not its flower). On the very small scale there is eyebright and the oddly named squinancywort dotted around the grass, as well as possibly some surviving fairy flax. The flowers of the latter two are only a couple of millimetres across. Milkwort may also survive in a few places into early July and very occasionally you may see mouse-ear.
A few orchids also last into July - particularly pyramidal orchid, though you can also see some common spotted orchids at the very start of the month. Clover (both white and red) can survive throughout the month, and you see the occasional oxeye daisy, though the vast bulk of these fade in late June.
Early in the month you can see dropwort, which looks like the meadowsweet one finds by rivers. Ribwort plantain can also occasionally survive into July, as can the fuzzy pink flower spikes of hoary plantain. Note also mignonette, and its taller, leafier lookalike weld. Most yellow rattle has now gone over, leaving the dry seed pods which give its name (don't mix these up with the seed heads of cowslips, which are also quite common).
As the month goes on you see more and more wild carrot (one of the umbellifer family, whose best known member is cow parsley). Though are found especially on coasts (see By the sea below) but are also quite common inland. They can be distinguished from other umbellifers (flowers with flat white heads of many tiny flowers) by the forked tassels (bracts to give them the technical term) under their flowerheads, and the way their blooms curl into a ball when they go over.
Other umbellifers you can see on downland later in the month include burnet saxifrage, whose two tiny leaves (one on the stalk and one on the base) are quite different - a sure clue to identification - and hedge parsley - a very delicate, wispy plant with wire-like stems. You can also find hogweed growing in quite large concentrations on downland, though it is more normally a verge or meadow flower. Superficially rather similar to these is yarrow, a very common flower on both downland and grassy verges which is in fact from a different family, the fleabanes. A yellow umbellifer found on the downs later in the month is wild parsnip.
If you see a flower that looks like a dandelion, only with squared ends to the petals, then it almost certainly not a dandelion at all but a hawkbit. This is a confusing family, hard to tell apart, but the one you are most likely to see on downland is rough hawkbit, which has hairy stems, one stalk and flower per plant, and can be very abundant early in the month, though later it fades away and produces characteristic brown seed heads.
Especially in shorter grass you also find lesser hawkbit - which again has one stalk and flower, and a greyish-purple underside to the petal - as well as smooth hawksbeard which has smaller flowers and branched stems. Towards the end of the month autumn hawkbit - branched, with a reddish tip to the underside of its petals, and leaves with jagged fishbone indentations - may just be seen.
It is not impossible that you may see the occasional creeping buttercup on downs, especially early in the month, but look carefully as it may in fact be silverweed - easily identifiable from its distinctive silver-backed leaves - or in the first half of the month a rock rose. Cinquefoil is also not impossible, though more usually seen on verges.
In the second half of July one sees harebells, better described by its Scottish name of bluebells, and clustered bellflower, which look a bit like gentians. The heather-like red bartsia adds a splash of pinkish purple to some downland as does wood sage, with its spikes of yellowish flowers, though it is normally a plant of heathland and sandy woods.
What one might more normally think of as wayside flowers that can also appear on downland include tufted vetch and golden (or ribbed?) melilot, both of which can sometimes be abundant on lower slopes. In short grass (usually on paths) some daisies still occur. On the slopes leading up to Beachy Head there are large stands of rosebay willowherb. Some new flowering shoots of viper's bugloss can occur on downland slopes near the sea.
In July 2012 I also saw one stretch of downland covered in striking pink common valerian. But this is normally a plant of damp places, doubtless flourishing on this occasion due to a very wet spring and early summer, (though some was also evident in the same place in July 2013 and 2014 when conditions were much drier). Another rarity (at least in this part of the world) which is sometimes found in July on downland or other bare grassy places in the south east is the pink-flowered betony.
By the sea
The wide range of flowers you find on shingle beaches in June have largely gone over, but a few late yellow-horned poppies can still be seen. Note this plant's amazingly long seeds - up to 30 centimetres, the longest seed of any UK plant. Sea kale - a rubbery cabbage-like plant that flowers in late May - now sports enormous sprays of green seed pods, which may turn yellowy-green as the month goes on.
You may also find some sea mayweed - looking almost exactly the same as the daisy-like weed of arable margins, but with more rubbery stems and leaves. A bit of red valerian may survive in places, and you continue to see the pink English stonecrop and the yellow biting stonecrop in dry stony environments. Sea beet flowers, though you need a magnifying glass to see this: pods open on its green spikes and a few yellow stamens emerge.
Also producing flowers too tiny to notice is common orache, but its spreading mats of diamond-shaped leaves are very evident on shingle. Silver ragwort survives in some places early in the month, as does tree mallow - a shrubby version of the verge flower, with dark centres to its flowers, which seems to like to grow at the head of shingle beaches. The asters you see growing on the edges of shingle beeches are almost certainly not the wild flower of that name, which grows on tidal river edges and salt marshes, but garden escapees. Knotgrass can be found at the top of shingle beaches.
The striking blue viper's bugloss may still be found on shingle beaches early in the month and can produce new shoots on coastal downland. Wild carrot is also abundant on coastal downland, as well as being found inland, and the same is true of mignonette. Other plants that can be found inland but are particularly common by the sea include bristly oxtongue - a wayside plant with dandelion-like flowers - and fennel - a yellow umbellifer with frizzy leaves that smell of aniseed when rubbed. On wilder clifftops you still may see some thrift or sea campion in flower.
For some reason sightings of lucerne in the south east also seem to be near the sea, though it can in theory crop on on arable margins inland. On bare ground near the sea you may still find sea radish, which looks very similar to the inland variety but has yellow flowers. The dessicated plants that you can see in many places near coasts with green seeds that turn black by the end of the month are alexanders.
I have also seen sea rocket flowering on the beach in both Folkestone and Seaford in early July: it has pale purple flowers and rubbery leaves and is normally more associated with sandy beaches. Found very occasionally found on sandier beaches is the striking sea holly, which is not a holly at all but a member of the umbellifer family that includes cow parsley.
On cliffs and in other rocky places (the chalk cliffs near Rottingdean are a good spot) look out for rock samphire, a rubbery plant which produces greenish flower buds in July, which then start to turn white and flower at the end of the month (and yes, this is the same samphire served as a vegetable in posh restaurants). There is also a rare golden samphire in July that looks a bit like common fleabane only with rubbery leaves and grows at the base of cliffs or on drier salt marshes.
Also in saltmarsh you get purple sea lavender, but more common is the almost identical rock sea-lavender which makes dramatic displays on chalk cliffs, for example near Brighton and Broadstairs. Early in the month on sheltered south-facing slopes in some beach resorts (for example Folkestone) you get rubbery hottentot figs, with their dramatic purple flowers.
Two seafront shrubs in bloom in and around seaside resorts this month are tamarisk, with pink flower spikes, and the showy yellow Spanish broom (not to be confused with the wilder native broom which flowers April to June). Both are somewhat variable in their flowering but tend to be at their best during July.
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