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August downland and seaside flowers

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Picture: field scabious. Click here for more August downland and seaside flower photos.

Downland flowers can still be at their peak in early August, or may be well past their best; 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.

Among the species that are abundant early in the month are knapweed, marjoram, basil and field scabious. Together they can make downland slopes look like a garden. As the month goes on many of them go over, but some last into September or even October. Greater knapweed has attractive golden cups after its flowers fade, which are a frequent sight this month, but look carefully, as the flowers of the carline thistle (which always look as if they have gone over) are quite similar at a casual glance.

Another plant which can be quite dominant on downland throughout the month is ragwort, usually hoary ragwort by this stage, though common ragwort can still be found. Other species that survive regularly into September include yarrow, wild carrot (whose flowers curl up into a brown ball when they go over), harebell, vervain and red bartsia, while birdsfoot trefoil can be dotted about in small quantities.

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, if at all. Devilsbit scabious (not at all common but sometimes found in quite large numbers - for example at the bottom of the inland-facing slopes behind Belle Tout lighthouse, in the grazed area in Folkestone Warren or at Yoesden Nature Reserve in the Chilterns) appears in mid August.

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 smaller, more delicate flowers, often with squared ends to their petals). The commonest species on downland is rough hawkbit, with its hairy stems; lots of it has already gone over by this point, but it can still put on a good show in places even late in the month. On short turf (such as areas grazed by sheep) you can also see the much daintier lesser hawkbit, whose flowers have a greyish-purple underside to the petals. A 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).

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 on the zigzag 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, lady's bedstraw, clover (nearly always red), self heal, St John's wort, field bindweed and the distinctively yellow umbellifer, wild parsnip (which is an irritant to the skin). Tufted vetch may also last into the early part of the month.

Agrimony, self heal and St John's wort in particular have a tendency to produce new shoots later in the month in wetter years. The same is true of common centaury, which crops up occasionally when you least expect it, probably growing from seed dispersed earlier in the summer, and also yellow-wort, whose flowers so rarely seen open that it looks like a completely different species when they do.

Mignonette and weld can very occasionally be seen - 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 come across hoary plantain, wild thyme or rock rose, though all three supposed to be over by now. Likewise, just occasionally some yellow rattle flowers also survive into (or revive in?) August, though they should be long gone by now.

Round-headed rampion and betony also occasionally crop up, the former mostly on the South Downs, the latter more common further west (for example, Corfe Common) though sometimes found in the south east. Particularly around Box Hill you may come across surviving flowers or new shoots of viper's bugloss, with its bright blue flowers: normally it is a seaside plant. A rare and hard to spot orchid of late summer is autumn lady's tresses, which grows for example on Pewley Down near Guildford and in Anchor Bottom near Shoreham-by-Sea.

Plants one might normally associate with verges or wasteground that you can find on the downs in August include creeping thistle and spear thistle: mostly they have gone to seed by now (the seeds drifting across the landscape being a common August sight) but some may still be in flower. If you see what looks like a stalkless spear thistle flower close to the ground, it might be dwarf thistle, a downland specialist. Very occasionally you may also come across a still blooming musk thistle, and ever more rarely welted thistle. Other plants of bare ground that sometimes find the dry conditions of August downland congenial include common toadflax, scarlet pimpernel and hawkweed oxtongue.

In addition rosebay willowherb and hogweed can grow in some quantity, while ribbed melilot and ribwort plantain crop up now and then. The verges of grassy paths may have some silverweed still in flower - more likely just its characteristic leaves will be evident - or possibly some cinquefoil. An unusual plant that sometimes appears on downland, with flowers that look a bit similar to those of groundsel (to which it is related) is ploughman's spikenard.

Another unusual sight is robin's pin cushion - a gall created by the larvae of the gall wasp, which makes a bright cluster of red threads on wild rose bushes. For some reason it seems to favour rose shoots on downland - for example, on Ranmore Common near Dorking. Broad-leaved everlasting pea can occasionally establish itself on downland, spreading through the grass on runners. I have seen this on the cliff tops of Kingsdown in Kent, but also once or twice on the North Downs.

By the sea

Specialist flowers by the sea are well past their best by now (June is the best month), but in saltmarshes you can still see sea lavender, and on chalk cliffs (eg between Brighton and Rottingdean) and sometimes at the top of shingle beaches, rock sea-lavender.

On rocky coastlines and cliffs some 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, but they are mixed with others that are not yet in flower or have gone over.

A species with a similar name but quite different in appearance (you might mistake it for common fleabane at a casual glance, though it has very different leaves) is golden samphire. It is 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, or along the River Adur near Shoreham-by-Sea).

On shingle beaches there can still be quite a bit of sea mayweed, looking much like the inland varieties of the plant, only with more rubbery leaves. You also see the occasional yellow-horned poppy still in flower, though a more common feature are its enormously long seeds (up to 30cm), the longest on any UK plant. There may be isolated flowers of thrift, sea campion, sea beet and silver ragwort. Also some Oxford ragwort, which has spread to seaside shingle from its more usual habitat on railway line clinker.

Even more rarely in the same habitat you may see sticky groundsel, which looks a bit like a ragwort whose petals are curling backwards. Elsewhere on shingle, sea pea (try Deal beach or Dungeness) has pods which look like those of farmed peas, while sea kale may still have yellow-green berries early in the month, but they soon fall off or turn brown. They then apparently get carried out to sea and wash up on new beaches, which is one way that the plant reaches new locations (though it also spreads on the beach it is on using underground suckers).

There are patches of bittersweet (woody nightshade) on shingle beaches, either still flowering or with green or red berries. Some red valerian flowers survive there or in other spots by the sea. Spear-leaved orache, with its triangular leaves, forms mats over the stones, but its flowers are inconspicuous (little more than a red-pink tinge): it can also appear as an erect plant in odd corners, such as by beach huts.

Sea purslane puts out similar flowers during August, though you have to look carefully to spot them: very inconspicuous yellow stamens are produced from a mass of brown buds. It is abundant in saltmarshes and on the banks of tidal rivers, but is sometimes found on bare ground on wilder seafronts. The striking red-stemmed plant you may also see in saltmarshes (it actually starts green and turns red) is common glasswort.

On sandy beaches (try Botany Bay near Broadstairs) you can occasionally find sea holly, surprisingly a relative of cow parsley. 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). Very occasionally sea spurrey crops up.

If you see a yellow-flowered crucifer (particularly on the cliffs around Broadstairs and Margate), a likely candidate is perennial wall rocket (classic slim rocket leaves, seed pods at an angle to the stem). Sea radish and black mustard also sometimes occur. Many of the latter have gone over by August, leaving a mass of desiccated brown stalks, but some new ones appear and flower. Keeping with the yellow flowers, bristly oxtongue is also fairly common in seaside locations, and in places you also see hawkweed oxtongue.

Not confined to coastal areas, but commonest in them, is fennel, a yellow umbellifer whose thread-like leaves smell strongly of aniseed (though the leaves tend to die back in August, just leaving the flowers). Another umbellifer whose flowering season is long over is alexanders, but its black seedheads are a very common sight by the sea in August.

Towards the end of the month, if you see a flower in a wild coastal location looking like a michaelmas daisy, check to see if it is a sea aster. The leaves are the clue to identification. They can be found, for example, on Durlston Head near Swanage, along the Cuckmere River near Cuckmere Haven, on Mudeford Spit near Christchurch, and on the sea walls near Faversham. The very different-looking garden asters, which also flower in semi-wild situations by the sea earlier in the summer, are usually long over by now, but the end of the month can see a bit of a revival in them which continues into September.

More unusual species include lucerne, a former fodder crop occasionally found on cliff tops or on shingle beach margins (eg in Eastbourne or Whitstable beaches or on the sea-facing slopes at Herne Bay), and great mullein, which is found in the scrub behind Bishopstone beach. Other flowers that may crop up on the more compacted ground at the top of shingle beaches include mallow, catsear, ribwort plantain, purple toadflax, and birdsfoot trefoil. On downland by the sea viper's bugloss may produce new shoots - you wonder what those tiny blue flowers are.

Tamarisk, a common shrub in seaside parks and gardens whose main flowering period was as long ago as June, sometimes forgets this and puts out a few pink flowers. Spanish broom, likewise supposedly over in July, may still have some yellow blooms. Holm oak (which grows, for example, on Walmer Beach) now has acorns, just like other oak species. A shrub that occurs in some coastal locations (such as behind Seaford beach and along the Adur at Shoreham-by-Sea), and which still usually has a few purple flowers in August, is the Duke of Argyll's tea plant.

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