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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. 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 its 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: it tends to be scattered individual flowers in July rather than the more concentrated carpets seen in June.

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.

Common ragwort is also very common on the downs, with its golden flowers: 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. It seems to be particularly common earlier in the month, and towards its end can have gone over, leaving attractive golden cups behind. However, the other two knapweed species can appear in rayed form too, making identification tricky. You also see plenty of true thistles on downland - most often creeping thistle and spear thistle, but also marsh thistle, musk thistle with its distinctive nodding head, and much more rarely welted thistle.

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. Much more rarely you might see lovely blue round-headed rampion.

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 ones early in the month, 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.

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 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. Milkwort may also survive in a few places into early July.

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.

Early in the month there is still some dropwort, which looks like the meadowsweet one finds by rivers. Ribwort plantain can also survive into July, as can the fuzzy pink flower spikes of hoary plantain. Note also mignonette and its taller lookalike weld, both occasionally seen. 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 found especially on coasts (see By the sea below), they are also quite common inland. They 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 their flowerheads, and by 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 throughout the month, 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. The 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: 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 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 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.

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 rock rose. Cinquefoil is also possible, though more usually seen on path verges.

In the second half of July one sees harebells, better described by their Scottish name of bluebells, and clustered bellflower, which looks a bit like a gentian. The heather-like red bartsia adds a splash of pinkish purple to some downland at the same time, and at any point in the month you may see some wood sage, with its spikes of yellowish flowers. The pink flowers of betony are also sometimes 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 golden (or ribbed?) melilot, both of which can sometimes be abundant on lower slopes. 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, and the same is true of hemp agrimony later in the month. Some goatsbeard may last into the early part of the month.

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 occasionally crops 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 clifftop. Common valerian, normally a marsh plant, occurs on Balcombe 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.

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 has large pods just like those of its vegetable patch cousins.

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 is in flower, though you need a magnifying glass to see this: pods open on its green spikes and a few yellow stamens emerge. Also producing very inconspicuous flowers is spear-leaved orache, which form mats on shingle beaches, as well as occasionally appearing in more erect (or semi-erect) form in odd corners on seafronts.

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 asters you see growing on the landward edges of shingle beeches or in other seafront locations are garden escapees. True wild sea asters have smaller flowers and grow on tidal river edges and salt marshes, flowering from mid month onwards: but they are not often seen.

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 Deal Beach. On wilder clifftops you still may see some thrift or sea campion in flower. Mignonette (and to a lesser extent the rather similar weld) grow on chalk cliff tops too, 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, and on Walmer beach you find striking acanthus flowers. Just occasionally you find very inconspicuous spikes of buckshorn plantain on bare ground.

Also on bare ground or at the head of shingle beaches, or on nearby cliff tops, you may still find sea radish, which looks very similar to white mustard, also sometimes found in the same habitat. Perennial wall rocket is present in some seaside locations too. These are all crucifers (cabbage family) plants with yellow flowers and are a challenge to tell apart. Black mustard, another member of this family that is reasonably common by the sea, tends to have gone over by July, with its stems turning brown, but some new ones may be flower, as may some shoots of the rather similar hoary mustard. 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 in places. Smooth hawksbeard and common ragwort also can be found in the same place. Other yellowy-orange flowers that are more rarely seen on shingle include Oxford ragwort, sticky groundsel, and 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 and great mullein can crop up on more compacted ground.

I have also seen sea rocket flowering at the top of the beach in both Folkestone and Seaford in July: it has pale purple flowers and rubbery leaves and is normally more associated with sandy beaches. Equally rare are sea heath and sea spurrey, both of which I have found growing at the top of the beaches of Seaford and Sandgate respectively in July. 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 a rarer golden samphire that appears later in July and looks a bit like common fleabane, only with rubbery leaves. This grows at the base of cliffs or on drier salt marshes: 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, or the cliffs of Durlston Head near Swanage.

Also in salt marsh 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 on the outskirts of Brighton, and at Broadstairs. Salt marsh also has large areas of sea purslane, another member of the orache family, whose undramatic and usually overlooked brown flowers appear in the second half of the month. 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.

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 fading towards its end.

More July pages:

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