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June downland and seaside flowers

Other June pages: Meadow and field flowersWayside flowers Hedgerow, trees and berries BirdsButterflies and insectsWeather

Picture: rock rose. Click here for more June downland and seaside flower photos.

Downland flowers are at their best in the summer months and June sees the start of that. For much or all of the month it tends to be the smaller flowers that are out, so often they are not always obvious until you look a bit closer. But some species - such as buttercups, birdsfoot trefoil, horseshoe vetch and sainfoin - can make big displays, and in the second half the species count definitely increases. All this depends on how much rain we have. The downs have porous chalk soils and while plants there are used to the dry conditions, there are limits to their endurance. But in wetter - or even reasonably damp - summers, the downs can be positively ablaze with wildflowers by the last week of June.

Birdsfoot trefoil is one of the commonest flowers on downland in June. Its yellow pea flowers are usually already abundant early in the month and remain so until its end. While sometimes they form sizeable patches, more usually they are dotted about the hillside. A superficially similar species is horseshoe vetch, which forms big carpets, sometimes covering whole hillsides. It tends to fade by the middle of June, however. In a few places you may see kidney vetch, particularly early in the month, though some can last into July.

Also yellow are the globe-like flowers of black medick (so named for its seeds rather than its flowers). At an even smaller scale are the white flowers of fairy flax on their wiry stalks and, towards the end of the month, the tiny pale pink or white clusters of squinancywort. Milkwort - usually with blue flowers but sometimes pink or white - can also last all month.

Buttercups are quite common on grazed downland early in the month but get less profuse at its end. Two species are possible - bulbous buttercup being found earlier in the month, creeping buttercup throughout. At first glance they are easy to confuse with rock rose and silverweed, two other yellow flowers of the same size and colour. On closer inspection the flowers of rock rose are different and they grow on tendrils with tiny leaves quite unlike buttercup ones. Silverweed has very distinctive leaves with a metallic underside, but the flowers often seem to be grow a bit apart from them, so you do not always link the two. On barer downland soils you may also find cinquefoil.

Other more general grassland flowers that may survive on downland into the early part of June include germander speedwell and bugle, while just occasionally some dovesfoot cranesbill or mouse-ear crops up. Daisies persist throughout the month on paths and in closely grazed areas. Clover is also seen - usually white clover, as red clover is not so keen on chalky soils (though some red clover does not seem to know this). Salad burnet is quite a common downland plant, in early June at least, but it is very hard to tell when this plant is actually in flower: when it is, it has a reddish frizz on top and yellow tassels hanging down, but often it looks as if it is either about to come out or just gone over.

Yellow rattle continues to flower. Its timing is rather variable: some can be over by mid month, but it can crop up right to the end of the month. Once over, its brown pods with seeds rattling in them give it its name. (Don't confuse these with the pods of cowslip, which have by now also gone over: cowslip pods are in a cluster at the end of the stalk, while yellow rattle ones are spread up the stalk).

Throughout the month you occasionally see spikes of mignonette, and even more occasionally the similar but taller weld. Oxeye daisies may survive well into June in places and are quite numerous on some downland slopes, though only in small patches on others. The pretty pink-flowered hoary plantain crops up now and then, and you also see its more common cousin ribwort plantain at times. An unconventional grass seen on downland is quaking grass.

Sainfoin is a member of the pea family that produces large numbers of dramatic pink flower spikes in a few places - try the cliffs between Kingsdown and St Margaret's Bay, Fackenden Down near Otford, the sea-facing slopes of Beachy Head, or Magdalen Down near Winchester. It is at its best in the first half. Viper's bugloss is more normally found on downland in coastal areas but sometimes appears inland (particularly, for some reason, on Box Hill). It starts as a small blue flower, but grows into huge spikes, which are very drought resistant.

June is the best month to see orchids on the downs, including the common spotted orchid (its name refers to its spotted flowers and stems, though it is the most commonly seen orchid too), the fragrant orchid, the green flowered twayblade (named for the large double leaf at its base), the man orchid and the bee orchid. All are likely to be going over at the end of the month, though pyramidal orchid is just getting into its stride at this time and is at its best in early July.

Rarer orchids you can see in particularly places include fly and spider orchids, while burnt tip orchids can be found in the valley next to Mount Caburn near Lewes. Hartslock Hill, between Goring and Pangbourne, is home to both lady orchids and a rare hybrid between it and the monkey orchid, while a small section of downland in Homefield Wood near Marlow is one of three UK sites for the military orchid. Photos of these and other orchids are on this page.

If you see a dandelion-like flower on downland it is very likely to be a rough hawkbit, though mouse-ear hawkweed (distinguishable by its rounded basal leaves, which are hidden away in the turf, and its neat yellow flowers) is also found with reasonable frequency. As the month goes on lesser hawkbit (square ended petals of uneven length with a grey-purple tints to their underside) appears, along with smooth hawksbeard (often taller than the other three and with branched stems, though on downland some seems to grow in a very short, stunted form).

In the second half of June a new wave of downland flowers appear, including the pretty purple tubes of self-heal, the tiny white flowers of eyebright, the pink stars of common centaury, and restharrow - so named because it used to impede agricultural implements. At the same time wild thyme (not particularly aromatic) makes purple mats. You can also find the much more aromatic leaves of wild marjoram growing right from the start of the month, but it doesn't flower until July.

Building as the month goes on and usually at their best at the month's end are white hedge bedstraw and yellow lady's bedstraw. Don't confuse either with crosswort, which can survive into the first half of June in quite large colonies. The second half is also the time to see the yellow-flowered St John's wort and field bindweed.

Stranger downland flowers in the second half include yellow-wort, with one large leaf straddling its stem: its flowers only open in sunlight and even then not often, it seems. Dropwort is a kind of downland meadowsweet, with a white frizz of flowers

Thistles also can grow on downland, including musk thistle with its large nodding heads and (surprisingly) marsh thistle: both might be flowering in the early part of June but are more normal in the second half, and the same is true of slender thistle, which is usually found near the sea. More common than all of these are creeping thistle and spear thistle, which may start to flower by the month's end.

A plant with a thistle-like flower that starts to appear in the last ten days of the month is knapweed: it goes on to be a summer staple. At the same time you can also find the pin-cushion flowers of field scabious, the striking orange-yellow common ragwort, the delicate yellow spikes of agrimony, and wild carrot, which can be easily distinguished from other umbellifers by its large forked bracts. Some wood sage may also crop up, probably budding at this stage rather than in flower.

Other flowers more normally associated with lowland grassland and verges that may just be seen on downland include meadow vetchling and lesser stitchwort in longer grass, along with bladder campion, white campion, common sorrel, yarrow and tufted vetch. Also goatsbeard, its large seed heads being more conspicuous than its flowers, which only open up in the early morning. Rosebay willowherb forms large patches in places on the downs and is starting to come out in force at the end of the month, and hogweed can also be seen in places. Common valerian - usually a marsh plant - is very occasionally found in quantity on downland slopes, for example above Rackham in Sussex, and on Bacombe Hill near Wendover.

An unusual sight you may see at the same time 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 short rose shoots on downland.

By the sea

On shingle beaches the best floral displays are earlier in the month, though some plants are at their best towards its end. Good places to see them are at Shoreham-by-Sea, Cuckmere Haven, the beach and the shingle area between Newhaven and Seaford, and on the seafront between Sandgate and Folkestone. The best display, however, is between Walmer and Kingsdown, near Deal. This latter beach is alive in early June with oxeye daisies, red and white valerian (actually colour variants of the same species), viper's bugloss, red hot pokers (a garden escapee), the leaves (though not yet the flowers) of fennel, and (occasionally) crow garlic. The grey leaves of silver ragwort can also be seen, though it does not flower until the second half.

Other shingle specialists include tree mallow, a shrub as much as a flower, which is distinguishable from common mallow by the dark purple centres to its flowers. It is at its best in early June and has mostly gone over by the end of the month. Note also the striking yellow-horned poppy, which can flower at any time in June but has its biggest concentration of flowers early to mid month. Later in the month it produces seeds up to 30 centimetres long, the longest of any UK plant. In addition in the first half of June you may see the white flowers of sea kale - Shoreham, Cuckmere Haven and the beach between Seaford and Newhaven are a particularly good place to see these - while in the second half the plant is covered in masses of green berries.

Rarer shingle specialists include sea pea which forms mats (for example on Deal beach) and then produces dramatic purple-blue flowers mid month; and sea sandwort, found in the same place, which produces white flowers on clumps of rubbery leaves. At the end of the month, patches of sea heath (its tiny pink flowers having square ends to their petals) can be seen in Seaford and on the cliffs at Rottingdean on the edge of Brighton. Another rarity, seen on Deal beach, is narrow-leaved ragwort, with yellow and gold flowers like common ragwort but thin thread-like stems.

More mundane plants of the seaside include sea beet, whose green flower spikes are evident all month, though you need to look very closely to see when the pods on the spikes actually open and put forth tiny yellow flowers. This untidy-looking plant is apparently edible, the ancestor of sugar beet, spinach, beetroot and chard. You can also see the leaves of sea mayweed - looking much like inland mayweeds but more rubbery to the touch - and at the very end of the month it may be flowering. Buckshorn plantain is mainly over but sometimes flowers very inconspicuously in June

Forming mats on shingle (very common once you get your eye in) is orache, which appears later in June. This usually seems to be spear-leaved orache, though the related Babington's orache, which is a seashore specialist, is also possible. Spear-leaved orache can also occasionally be found as a more erect plant at the top of beaches. In all cases, the inconspicuous flowers do not appear until July.

Drought-resistant plants that can establish themselves on the more compacted parts of shingle beaches include catsear, mouse-ear hawkweed, beaked hawksbeard, smooth hawskbeard and smooth sow thistle, all of which have dandelion-like flowers. The same is true of bristly oxtongue, which is more of a coastal specialist, though also found inland. You also can see prostrate patches of bittersweet (aka woody nightshade). Other plants I have seen on the landward edge of shingle beaches in June include common mallow, Oxford ragwort, annual mercury, scarlet pimpernel, black medick, purple toadflax, great mullein, black mustard, hoary mustard, hedge mustard, groundsel, ribwort plantain, weld and slender thistle.

You can find asters (garden escapees rather than the true wild sea aster, which has smaller flowers and does not come out till July), and the showy pink flowers of rubbery hottentot figs growing on some south facing slopes near the sea. (The eastern end of the Sunny Sands beach in Folkestone is a good place to see the latter). Snow-in-summer is another garden plant that occasionally escapes onto the top of shingle beaches or cliff tops. On wilder sandy beaches (not common in the south east: try Botany Bay near Broadstairs) you may see sea holly, which is not a holly at all but a relative of cow parsley.

The salt-tolerant hoary cress is mainly in flower early in the month, though sometimes later, cropping up at the head of beaches or on coastal wasteground: it is also found inland by roads salted in winter. Alexanders, a green-flowered umbellifer, has gone over by now, but its seedheads (green at this time of year) are a very common sight by the sea in June. By the end of the month sea purslane in salt marshes is putting forward its little-noticed flower buds (or possibly actually flowers: it is hard to tell).

On cliff faces, as well as the sea heath mentioned above, you get the plants of rock samphire and rock sea-lavender, and the latter might be flowering by the end of the month, as might the almost identical saltmarsh-dwelling sea lavender. Shingle or cliffs also provide nice environments for stonecrops – for example the pink-tinged English stonecrop or the yellow biting stonecrop, both of which flower towards the end of the month.

On the cliff tops near Dover, as well as along the seafront of Folkestone Warren, you get wild cabbage - allegedly brought there by the Romans. It is common early in the month and has lovely yellow flowers. Sea radish, with flowers of the same colour, is also found in various locations near the sea, for example on the sea-facing slopes of Beachy Head. Black mustard and bastard cabbage are other similar plants that also grow on cliff tops (for example, above Folkestone Warren).

On wilder grassy cliff tops you can sometimes see thrift (for example on Seaford Head or near Hastings) and kidney vetch (eg on the cliffs at Kingsdown or South Foreland). Both also occur on shingle, which is where you are most likely to see sea campion in this part of the world, though in the West Country it too grows on cliff tops. All three are at best early in the month but can be found later. Mignonette is also sometimes found on cliff tops (for example either side of Birling Gap) and in the second half of June (or sometimes earlier) you see wild carrot – a low umbellifer easily identifiable by the long bracts (tassels) beneath its flowers. It is also found inland but is commonest on coasts, eg on Seaford Head, where it grows in great profusion.

Viper's bugloss (mentioned above as a shingle flower) is another common plant of coastal downland. On the cliff tops above Folkestone Warren and at South Foreland near Dover, and also on the shingle at Dungeness, lots of Nottingham catchfly also grows, its flowers closed by day and only open towards dusk.

A common shrub in seaside resort gardens and on seafronts is tamarisk. It has pale pink flower tassels, though it can also look as if it is in flower even when it is just budding. Flowering times are variable, but it is usually at its best in the second half of June. Broom also continues to produce its yellow flowers in similar locations, as well as inland, fading in the second half and putting out grey pods, but with Spanish broom taking over towards the end of the month in places (eg on Eastbourne seafront). Holm oak flourishes on Walmer beach, its flower tassels fading as the month goes on.

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