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July downland and seaside flowers

Other July pages: • Wayside flowersHedgerow, fruit and berriesBirdsButterflies and insectsWeather

Picture: knapweed. Click here for more July downland and seaside flower photos.

July is the best month for downland flowers: favoured slopes can seem like a garden, with a rich diversity of species. Of course drier summers can reduce the displays, but these are flowers that are adapted to living on well-drained soils and so they usually manage to put on a good show regardless.

Common downland flowers early in July 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 and are scattered all over downland, though occasionally seen in more intense patches.

Common ragwort, with its golden flowers, is also frequently found on the downs,: it can last to the end of the month in places, though hoary ragwort - slightly more delicate and without black tips to its bracts - takes over as July turns to August. A similar colour are the cheerful blooms of St John’s wort, from which the popular depression cure comes, which is at its best in the first half.

Knapweed, with its purple thistle-like flower, comes out in great quantities as the month progresses, having usually already been in flower to some extent at its start. There are three different species, including greater knapweed, which is "rayed", ie having extra tassels projecting from the side of the flowerhead (though the other two knapweeds can appear in rayed form too, making identification tricky). Greater knapweed seems to be particularly common earlier in the month, and towards its end can have gone over, leaving attractive golden cups behind.

Interestingly, it is around the same time that carline thistles bloom, their flowers looking at a casual glance very similar to a greater knapweed that has gone over, though with proper thistle-like leaves. You also see plenty of other thistle species on downland - most often creeping thistle and spear thistle, but also marsh thistle, musk thistle with its distinctive nodding head, and more rarely welted thistle. There is also a specialist thistle of downland - dwarf thistle - which looks very like a stunted spear thistle with no stem, the flowers growing directly out of the basal leaves.

Field scabious is another classic flower of downland in July, with its mauve blooms much lovelier than its rather ugly name: like knapweed, it builds in intensity as the month goes on. On the South Downs and in Dorset you might also see lovely blue round-headed rampion.

July downland is a good place to find wild herbs. Mostly early in the month, but sometimes later, you see wild thyme (only faintly aromatic) which makes mats of tiny purple flowers. Then from mid month, though with the occasional examples earlier, you get the pink flowers of marjoram, whose leaves have the familiar oregano smell: it dominates downland later in the month, even in drought years. It is joined by wild basil, whose flowers are tiny pink trumpets from pincushion ruffs at intervals up its stem, and which has similar timings.

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 centaury makes little pink clumps. A tiny bit of sainfoin sometimes survives into July.

Early in the month there is still some dropwort, which looks like the meadowsweet one finds by rivers. The fuzzy pink flower spikes of hoary plantain can also survive into July, and you sometimes see ribwort plantain. Mignonette occasionally crops up, as does the rather similar weld. Most yellow rattle has now gone over, leaving the dry seed pods which give it its name: don't mix these up with the seed heads of cowslips, which are also quite common. An unconventional grass you can see on downland is quaking grass.

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. You can also sometimes see the tiny yellow globes of black medick (whose name refers to its seed, not its flower), and at the start of the month some bright blue germander speedwell may still survive.

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 these last three are only a couple of millimetres across. Though really a bare ground plant, scarlet pimpernel just occasionally crops up on downland, and you might just see mouse-ear, a grassland flower.

A few orchids also last into July - particularly pyramidal orchid, though you may just 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.

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 found especially on coasts (see By the sea below), it is also quite common inland. It can be distinguished from other umbellifers (flowers with flat heads of many tiny flowers) by the forked tassels (bracts to give them the technical term) under the flowerhead, and by the way its 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 throughout the month, though it is more normally a verge or meadow flower. (It is a mild irritant to the skin, so probably best not to touch it.) 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. The yellow umbellifer found on the downs later in the month is wild parsnip (another irritant to the skin).

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: it later tends to fade away and produce characteristic brown seedheads, though you can see some flowers right to the end of July.

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 on 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 also be seen. These last two can both occur in a short stunted form on downland and in this state are very hard to tell apart.

Right at the start of the month on particularly short turf you might see mouse-ear hawkweed, distinguished from the hawkbits by the oval leaves in its basal rosette, and just occasionally you come across other hawkweeds, a confusing family of single-stemmed sub-species, some with scattered leaves on the stem, some not, which prefer dry grass on chalk soils.

Much taller than all of these, with branched stems that are rough to the touch and many flowers to each plant, is hawkweed oxtongue, a bare ground plant that nevertheless sometimes seems to be at home on downland, and which comes out later in the month.

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, though this can be at a small distance from the plant - or cinquefoil, which has five lobed leaves and flowers: both of these are often found on path or track verges. Very occasionally you may also see rock rose.

In the second half one sees harebells, better described by their Scottish name of bluebells, while the heather-like red bartsia adds a splash of pinkish purple to some downland at the same time. Clustered bellflowers become common in some places as the month goes on, and at any point in July you may see some wood sage, with its spikes of yellowish flowers. The pink flowers of betony are also very occasionally found on downland in the south east, though it is commoner in the West Country.

What one might more normally think of as wayside flowers that can also appear on downland include tufted vetch and ribbed melilot, both of which can sometimes be abundant on lower slopes. In longer grass you may see some surviving lesser stitchwort or meadow vetchling, as well as goatsbeard in the early part of the month. In short grass (usually on paths) some daisies still occur. In some places (for example on the slopes leading up from Eastbourne to Beachy Head) there are large stands of rosebay willowherb.

Bladder and white campion also seem to find downland congenial, and towards the end of the month you can see some common toadflax. Great mullein and dark mullein occasionally crop up. Some new flowering shoots of viper's bugloss can occur on slopes inland, though it is more normally seen by the sea.

Kidney vetch can also still be in flower on bare downland slopes early in the month, and near Kingsdown in Kent broad-leaved everlasting pea sprawls over an extensive area of chalk cliff top: some also occurs on the North Downs. Common valerian, normally a marsh plant, can be found (inexplicably) in great abundance on Bacombe Down near Wendover and above Rackham near Arundel.

Not strictly a downland flower but for some reason seen there more than elsewhere, is robin's pin cushion - a gall on wild rose bushes that looks like a bright red cluster of threads. It seems to favour short rose shoots on downland, or is perhaps just more visible there.

By the sea

There is a much less intense display of flowers on shingle beaches in July than there was in early June, 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 sprays of green seed pods, which turn yellowy-green as the month goes on. Sea pea (found on the shingle at Dungeness and on Deal Beach) has large pods just like those of its vegetable patch cousins. Some red valerian flowers may survive in places.

This is probably the best month for sea mayweed - looking almost exactly the same as the daisy-like weed of arable margins but with more rubbery stems and leaves. It is a good month too to see the pink English stonecrop in dry stony environments (and much more occasionally the yellow biting stonecrop or white stonecrop, the later growing on taller stalks than the otherwise quite similar English stonecrop). Note the way its rubbery leaves can be red or green, presumably depending on how much moisture there is in the soil.

Sea beet is also in flower, though you need a magnifying glass to see this: pods open on its green spikes and a few yellow stamens emerge. Other hard-to-see flowers include the stamens on the spikes of the little-noticed buckshorn plantain, most of which have gone over but some of which may still be in bloom, and those of spear-leaved orache, which forms mats on shingle beaches, as well as occasionally appearing in more erect (or semi-erect) form in odd corners on seafronts: it is starting to flower at the end of the month, and at best its flowers have a reddish-pink tinge, but often all you see are brown nodules on the end of the stems.

A few silver ragwort flowers survive in places early in the month, as do some on tree mallow - a shrubby version of the verge flower, with dark centres to its flowers, which grows at the head of shingle beaches. The garden escapee asters you see growing on the landward edges of shingle beaches or in other seafront locations in June are mostly over by now, though you might see a few still in bloom even late in the month. (True wild sea asters have smaller flowers and much taller stems, and grow on tidal river edges and saltmarshes; but they do not flower until later in August.)

The striking blue spikes of viper's bugloss may still sometimes be found on shingle beaches and can produce new shoots on coastal downland. In the latter location wild carrot is also abundant. Fennel - a yellow umbellifer with frizzy leaves that smell of aniseed when rubbed, is common by the sea too - for example on the landward edge of Kingsdown beach in Kent.

On wilder clifftops (eg Seaford Head) you still may see some thrift in flower, and both it and sea campion sometimes crop up on shingle (eg in Shoreham-by-Sea). Mignonette (and to a lesser extent the rather similar weld) grow on chalk cliff tops, such as the Seven Sisters and the white cliffs of Dover. Lucerne is found at the head of the the shingle beach east of Eastbourne, as well as in places on Whitstable beach, while on sheltered south-facing slopes in some beach resorts (for example Folkestone) you get rubbery hottentot figs: mostly they produce their showy pink flowers in May or June, but some may still be evident in July.

Also on bare ground or at the head of shingle beaches, or on nearby cliff tops (eg the sea-facing slopes below Beachy Head) you may still find sea radish. Perennial wall rocket is present in some seaside locations too. These are both crucifers (cabbage family) plants with yellow flowers. Another member of this family that is reasonably common by the sea is black mustard. It tends to have gone over by July, with its stems turning brown, but some new ones may be in flower, as may the rather similar bastard cabbage and hoary mustard (all very hard to tell apart). The desiccated plants that you can see in many places near coasts with green seeds that turn black by the end of the month are alexanders.

Plants with dandelion-like flowers that are common by the sea include bristly oxtongue - very abundant - and hawkweed oxtongue, which grows at the head of shingle beaches and in coastal scrub (such as the one between Newhaven and Seaford), flowering in the second half. Smooth hawksbeard and common ragwort also can be found on shingle beaches.

Other yellowy-orange flowers that may be seen in the same habitat include Oxford ragwort, and much more rarely sticky groundsel or narrow-leaved ragwort. Prostrate bittersweet (aka woody nightshade) shrubs form low patches on shingle, and can flower and produce green berries at the same time, while common mallow, great mullein and ribwort plantain can crop up on more compacted ground at the top of the beach.

You can also sometimes see sea rocket flowering at the top of beaches: it has very pale purple flowers and rubbery leaves, and I have seen it at Folkestone, Rottingdean, Seaford and Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. Sea heath is found along the beach edge of the promenade at Seaford and also growing on the cliffs at Rottingdean, and you also might just come across sea spurrey, eg on the seafront at Sandgate or by the Cuckmere River near Cuckmere Haven. Found very occasionally on sandier beaches (eg Botany Bay near Broadstairs) 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: this is the same samphire served as a vegetable in posh restaurants. There is also golden samphire which is more normally seen in August (and later in August at that), but can in theory start to flower in July. This grows at the base of cliffs or in saltmarshes: try Samphire Hoe between Folkestone and Dover, the banks of the Adur river in Shoreham-by-Sea, the marsh sea walls near Faversham, the seafront at Westgate and Birchington-on-Sea, Portland Bill, or the cliffs of Durlston Head near Swanage.

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 at Ovingdean and Rottingdean, behind the beaches at Cuckmere Haven, and at Broadstairs. In addition saltmarsh, and sometimes other bare corners by the sea, have large areas of sea purslane, another member of the orache family, whose undramatic and usually overlooked flowers appear as small yellow stamens in the second half of the month, growing out of a mass of brown buds that appear at the end of June. Notice also glasswort in saltmarshes, which starts out green and then turns a striking red.

The best displays of pink flowers on tamarisk, a common seafront shrub, are usually now past, but you still may get some of its pink flowers. The showy yellow Spanish broom (not to be confused with the wilder native broom which flowers April to June) is still at its best early in the month, but is starting to fade towards its end - the seafront at Eastbourne has a good display. In the scrub behind the beach between Seaford and Newhaven, as well as by the River Adur near Shoreham-by-Sea and near Birling Gap, you can find the Duke of Argyll's tea plant, which produces its purple flowers in small quantities throughout the summer.

More July pages:

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