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Nature and Weather in South East England

August downland and seaside flowers

Other August pages: • Fruits, berries, nuts and treesWayside flowersBirdsButterflies and insectsWeather

Put your cursor over any photo to see its caption, or click here to see more August downland and seaside flower photos.

Downland flowers can still be at their peak in early August, or they may have largely gone over; it depends on the amount of rain there has been. Sometimes after a dry July there is a small scale revival in August. Even in good years displays are fading at the end of the month, however.

Species that nearly always last throughout August and into September include knapweed, field scabious, yarrow and wild carrot (whose flowers curl up into a brown ball when they go over). Greater knapweed has attractive golden cups after its flowers fade, which are quite a frequent sight this month. Devilsbit scabious (not at all common but sometimes found in quite large numbers) often seems to be just starting in mid August

Marjoram and basil can also be very abundant earlier in the month, though fade as the month goes on. Some marjoram usually lasts into September, though. Basil may do also, and the same is true of harebells, vervain and red bartsia. Burnet saxifrage, an umbellifer (a plant with flowers like cow parsley) also tends to last the month, though hedge parsley, is usually only found in the first half.

Birdsfoot trefoil can also be seen throughout August, though one sees only dribs and drabs of it rather than the carpets of it you can get earlier in the year. Ragwort on downland at this time of year seems to be predominantly hoary ragwort, though some common ragwort may still be seen.

Also routinely lasting into September is a confusing category of dandelion-like flowers (most people think they are dandelions, but they have thinner stems and more delicate flowers with squared ends to their petals). The commonest species on downland is rough hawkbit, with its very hairy stem, though most of it has already gone over by this point. You can also see the much daintier lesser hawkbit, whose flowers have a greyish-purple underside to the petals. A tiny hawkbit which is branched (ie its stems divide, with a flower on each) could be autumn hawkbit or smooth hawksbeard, both of which have red undersides to their petals (more on the tip possibly in autumn hawkbits). Also branched, but with larger flowers and occasionally seen on downland, is catsear, which has green or grey undersides to its petals. Very rarely mouse-ear hawkweed, a fairly common downland plant earlier in the summer and identifiable by its oval basal leaves, may also crop up.

Two flowers that are at their best in August are clustered bellflower and autumn gentian. They look similar and are easy to confuse, but it is the arrangement of the leaves on their stems that tells them apart. Clustered bellflower is the one more often found and may be seen from early in August: in places - for example some slopes of Box Hill - it is very numerous. Autumn gentian is much more elusive, appearing in the second half of August. The Chilterns has its own variety of this - the Chiltern gentian.

Other downland flowers are more likely to be seen early in the month, but may still crop up here and there even in the second half. In this category are agrimony, ladies bedstraw, clover (generally red but sometimes a bit of white), self heal, St John's wort, field bindweed and the distinctively yellow umbellifer, wild parsnip.

There may also be some common centaury dotted around - this is another plant that seems to re-grow from seed dispersed earlier in the summer - as well as yellow-wort, whose flowers are so rarely seen open that it looks like a completely different species when they are. Tufted vetch may just last into the early part of the month.

Mignonette and weld can very occasionally be seen too - often, but not exclusively, on downland by the sea. At a smaller size you may still see tiny eyebright and restharrow, and maybe some black medick, squinancywort or fairy flax. Very rarely you might see hoary plantain, wild thyme or rock rose, though all three supposed to be over by now. Round-headed rampion and betony can also sometimes be seen, though the latter seems more common in the west of England (for example, Corfe Common).

Plants one might normally associate with verges or wasteground that crop up on the downs in August include creeping thistle and spear thistle. Mostly they have gone to seed by now but some may still be in flower. Very occasionally you may also come across a still blooming musk thistle or woolly thistle. Also sometimes found in some places are rosebay willowherb and hogweed, as well as golden (or ribbed?) melilot. Ribwort plantain seems to undergo a bit of a revival on downland in late August and just occasionally you might see common toadflax or scarlet pimpernel, both plants of bare ground. Path verges may have some silverweed still in flower - more likely just its characteristic leaves will be evident - or possibly some cinquefoil.

An unusual sight early in the month is robin's pin cushion - a gall on wild rose bushes that looks like a bright red cluster of threads. For some reason it seems to favour rose shoots on downland - for example, Ranmore Common near Dorking.

By the sea

Specialist flowers by the sea are well past their best by now (June is the best month), but in salt marshes you can still see sea lavender (mainly earlier in the month), and on chalk cliffs (eg between Brighton and Rottingdean), and sometimes at the top of shingle beaches, rock sea-lavender. In the same habitat - rocky coastlines and cliffs - rock samphire (used in posh restaurants as a vegetable) is in flower right to the end of the month, with its white umbellifer-like blooms usually looking as if they are not quite fully out, and mixed with others that are not yet in flower or have gone over. A much rarer and quite different species (you might mistake it for common fleabane at a casual glance) is golden samphire, found at the base or top of cliffs (eg Durlston Head near Swanage on at Westgate-on-Sea and Birchington-on-Sea on the Isle of Thanet), or on drier salt marshes (for example along the sea wall near Faversham in Kent).

Not confined to coastal areas, but commonest in them, is fennel, a yellow umbellifer whose thread-like leaves smell strongly of aniseed. An umbellifer whose flowering season is long over is alexanders, but its black seed-heads are a very common sight by the sea in August.

On shingle beaches yellow-horned poppy can still occasionally pop up - note its enormously long seeds (up to 30cm), the longest found on any UK plant. You may also find isolated flowers of thrift, sea campion, sea beet, sea mayweed and maybe some silver ragwort: just occasionally also some Oxford ragwort which seems to be spreading to seaside shingle from its normal habitat on railway line clinker. Sea pea is now dominated by its pods, which look like those of farmed peas, while sea kale still has some yellow-green berries early in the month: by its end they have either fallen off or turned brown, however.

On sandy beaches (try Botany Bay near Broadstairs) you can occasionally see sea holly, a relative of cow parsley. The occasional pink-flowered sea rocket might also be seen: it is supposed to grow at the head of sandy beaches (eg Margate or Mudeford Spit near Christchurch) but sometimes gets a foothold on shingle ones (such as in Folkestone).

Any asters you see are more likely to be the large-flowered garden escapee, rather than the smaller-flowered wild sea aster (which looks a bit like a michaelmas daisy and which can be seen at Durlston Head near Swanage, near Cuckmere Haven, on Mudeford Spit and on the sea walls near Faversham). Lucerne, occasionally found on clifftops or on shingle beach margins (eg in Eastbourne or on the sea-facing slopes at Herne Bay), is a former fodder crop, while sweet alison, a white-flowered maritime plant from the Atlantic coast of Southern Europe, came to this country as a garden bedding plant and is now sometimes found wild in coastal locations.

If you see a yellow-flowered crucifer (particularly on the cliffs around Broadstairs and Margate), a likely candidate is either perennial wall rocket (classic slim rocket leaves, seed pods at an angle to the stem). Sea radish and black mustard also sometimes crop up, though lots of the latter has gone over by August, leaving a mass of desiccated brown stalks.

Bristly oxtongue is also fairly common in seaside locations, and some red valerian survives. There are patches of bittersweet (woody nightshade) on shingle. At the far eastern end of Eastbourne beach there is quite a lot of chicory. Spear-leaved orache, with its triangular leaves, forms mats over shingle beaches, but its flowers are inconspicuous (Babbington's orache is a common coastal variety of this plant). Both spear-leaved and common orache may also appear as erect plants at the top of the beach. Sea purslane is another plant with similar flowers (more usually in bloom earlier in the month, though it is hard to tell, frankly). It is found in salt marshes, on the banks of tidal rivers, or sometimes on bare ground near seafront promenades.

On downland by the sea viper's bugloss may produces new shoots - you wonder what these tiny blue flowers are. Tamarisk, a common shrub in seaside parks and gardens, continues to have a few pink flowers and Spanish broom may still have some yellow blooms. Holm oak (which grows, for example, on Walmer Beach) now has acorns, just like other oak species.

More August pages:


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