Other May pages: Woodland, meadow and field flowers • Wayside flowers • Trees and shrubs • Birds • Butterflies and insects • Weather
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There are not many flowers on downland in May - late June to August is the peak time. Perhaps the best displays come from buttercups - often bulbous buttercups, which have a liking for drier conditions - which can make intense displays on downs that are closely grazed. Cowslips can also colonise some hillsides, especially in the first three weeks of the month: after they go over, their seed pods are very evident.
Other flowers that can form mats include ground ivy early in the month and germander speedwell throughout the month. Daisies can carpet the short grass of paths and also closely grazed downland. The little yellow globes of black medick are also prone to form large patches as the month goes on.
Note too the tiny blue or pink flowers of milkwort, which can be found throughout the month. Equally hard to spot, but quite common, are the small globes of salad burnet. It is very hard to tell when this plant is actually in flower: sometimes it displays a reddish blush, but often it looks as if it is either about to come out or just gone over.
Also easy to overlook are the flowers of silverweed because its yellow flowers look almost exactly like buttercups. The clue is in the very distinctive leaves of the plant with their metallic-coloured underside but the flowers often appear to be rather detached from these. If you think you see a dandelion it is probably a mouse-ear hawkweed, though early in the month you may come across a miniature dwarf version of the true dandelion that is adapted to downland habitats.
Downland is also known for orchids but it is in June that most appear. The cliffs of Beachy Head sport a good number of early purple orchids in early May, however, and later in the month you may see common spotted orchids.
In the second half of the month you can also see yellow rattle, birdsfoot trefoil, horseshoe vetch, mignonette and rock rose, along with the pretty pink sainfoin. The tiny white flowers of eyebright may appear at this time too but look closely to make sure it is not thyme-leaved speedwell. The latter seems more usually to be found in grassy lowland fields, but could in theory appear on downland too. The blue spikes of viper's bugloss may also be found - usually near to the sea but sometimes also on inland downland too.
In addition you may see what are more normally flowers of lowland grassland. These include ribwort plantain, common sorrell, common vetch, common mouse-ear, field mouse-ear and crosswort.
By the month's end the shoots of downland flowers to come are evident, including the aromatic foliage of marjoram, and the leaves of hedge bedstraw, ladies bedstraw and St John's wort, but none of these flower before June.
By the sea
May is a wonderful month for clifftop flowers, but the best place to see them is Devon and Cornwall. In the latter county, the more exposed clifftops are absolutely covered in pink thrift, white sea campion and yellow kidney vetch in May: you can sometimes see these on wilder spots in the south east – eg thrift can be found in small quantities on the cliffs near Hastings and Seaford and kidney vetch on the cliffs between St Margaret's Bay and Walmer.
More common in the south east are alexanders, a greeny yellow-flowered umbellifer (ie, a bit like cow parsley) which is found mainly on path and road verges near coastal areas, and which was apparently brought over by the Romans as a pot herb. It is in full flower early in the month, fading in the second or third week (at the end of the month in 2012 and 2013). On the sea cliffs near Dover one can also see another Roman import - wild cabbage with its yellow flowers and rubbery cabbage-like leaves. Cliff tops and edges may also sport wallflower, a bright orange garden escapee.
Another interesting coastal habitat in May is shingle beaches. By the end of May Walmer beach just south of Deal is covered in white oxeye daisies, interspersed with red valerian, a rubbery plant with large flower spikes, which also grows improbably out of cracks in walls. You also see white valerian, not really a different species but just a white-flowered variant. In the same place you can also see red hot pokers, a garden escapee, and the delicate pink flowers of salsify, which is eaten as a vegetable on the continent. In more exposed locations on the shingle sea kale produces masses of white flowers from around the second week.
At the head of shingle beaches you can find the shrubby tree mallow, which has pink flowers with dark purple centres, and possibly crucifers such as sea radish. White-flowered hoary cress may also grow here and along inland roads that are salted in winter. Other flowers of the marginal zone between shingle and the land include the strange houndstongue, whose maroon flowers look as if they are not fully open, and the inconspicuous buckshorn plantain.
Viper's bugloss also starts to put up its blue flower spikes later in the month, both on shingle margins and on downland by the sea. At the same time you may see slender thistle. On sandy beaches look out for the spiky leaves of sea holly (which is not in fact a holly but rather a relative of cow parsley), though it does not actually flower until June.
Close inspection of undisturbed shingle (try the landside of the shingle bar at Cuckmere Haven or the seaward edge of Walmer Beach) can also reveal the leaves of other coastal specialists that will flower in June, such as yellow-horned poppy, sea pea, sea mayweed, sea beet, bristly oxtongue, various stonecrops, the metallic-coloured leaves of silver ragwort, and the aromatic frizzy leaves of fennel.
More May pages:
- Woodland, meadow and field flowers
- Wayside flowers
- Trees and shrubs
- Butterflies and insects
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