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May downland and seaside flowers

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Picture: oxeye daisy and red valerian on Kingsdown Beach. Click here for more May downland and seaside flower photos.

There are not many flowers on chalk downland in May - June to August is the peak time. Perhaps the best displays come from buttercups - usually bulbous buttercups, which have a liking for drier conditions, though occasionally creeping buttercups - which can make intense displays on downs that are closely grazed. Cowslips can also colonise some hillsides, especially in the first three weeks of the month: after they go over, their seed pods are very evident.

Other flowers that can form mats include ground ivy in the first half and germander speedwell throughout the month. Wild strawberry, bugle and violets can also survive on downland into the first half of May, while daisies can be found throughout the month on the short grass of paths and also closely grazed downland. The little yellow globes of black medick sometimes form large patches as the month goes on.

Note too the tiny blue, pink or (rarely) white flowers of milkwort, which can be found throughout the month. Equally inconspicuous are the small globes of salad burnet: its (minuscule) flowers are green but are most noticeable for their red styles - a frizz on top of the globe - and yellow anthers - tiny tassels hanging down below. Much rarer are the little yellow flowers of spring sedge which may be seen at the start of May.

Also easy to overlook are the flowers of silverweed because its yellow flowers look almost exactly like buttercups. The clue is in its very distinctive leaves, with their metallic-coloured underside, but the flowers often appear to be rather detached from these. Another species that is easy to mistake for buttercups is rock rose, which can appear from quite early in May but is more common (sometimes very abundant) later on.

Early in the month you can see a dwarf version of the dandelion which is adapted to downland habitats, and you sometimes also see full-size (but stunted) versions of these flowers. If you look closely, what you are looking at might be mouse-ear hawkweed, however, distinguishable from other similar flowers by its oval basal leaves, and with a lighter yellow colour and overall neater appearance; it can be found on downland all month. Right at the end of the May you may just see some rough hawkbit.

You can get a few birdsfoot trefoil flowers early in the month, but it is in the second half that they become more widespread. A confusion species here is horseshoe vetch, whose flowers form a neat little circle, and which can form large patches on downland from the second week. As the month goes on you may also see yellow rattle, fairy flax, mignonette, weld and pretty pink sainfoin; very occasionally also eyebright and in warmer Mays some wild carrot. Bladder campion also seems to like downland.

More unusual downland flowers include kidney vetch and strange seemingly half-open flowers of houndstongue. Rather surprisingly you also sometimes see wood spurge. In addition you may see flowers that also occur in lowland grassland. These include ribwort plantain, common vetch, common mouse-ear and crosswort, as well as - towards the end of the month - oxeye daisy, red or white clover and common sorrel.

The shoots of downland flowers to come include the aromatic foliage of marjoram, and the leaves of hedge bedstraw, lady's bedstraw, St John's wort and wood sage, but none of these flower before June. Wild thyme may just be starting to flower at the very end of the month, however. You may notice the leaves of creeping thistle only when you sit on them, though the plant also starts to grow up as the month goes on. Very occasionally at the very end of month you may see marsh, musk or slender thistle in flower, the latter usually near the sea.

Downland is also known for orchids but it is in June that most appear. You may just see early purple orchids on grassy slopes early in May, however, and a little later common twayblade (though with its green flowers it is very inconspicuous). At the very end of the month there can be the occasional common spotted orchid, fragrant orchid or man orchid starting. On Samphire Hoe near Dover a colony of rare early spider orchids flowers during May.

By the sea

May is a wonderful month for cliff top flowers, and in Devon and Cornwall the more exposed cliff tops are absolutely covered in pink thrift, white sea campion and yellow kidney vetch. You can sometimes see these on wilder spots in the south east too: thrift can be found on the cliff tops of the south coast of the Isle of Wight, on Seaford Head and near Hastings, and above Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight. Kidney vetch grows on the cliffs of Folkestone Warren, on South Foreland near St Margaret's Bay, on the cliffs near Kingsdown, and on the slopes above Compton Bay on the Isle Wight. Sea campion is sadly much rarer in the south east, but can be seen in small quantities on the beach at Shoreham-by-Sea.

More common in our area are alexanders, a greeny yellow-flowered umbellifer (ie, with flowers like cow parsley) which is found mainly on clifftops and verges in coastal areas, though sometimes also further inland. It was apparently brought over by the Romans as a pot herb, the fact that it produces abundant foliage over the winter being what recommended it to them. It is in full flower early in the month, usually fading in the second or third week, leaving a mass of green seeds which turn black later in the summer.

On the sea cliffs near Dover and Folkestone one can also see wild cabbage, another Roman import, with its yellow flowers and rubbery cabbage-like leaves, while black mustard and the very similar-looking bastard cabbage flower on the Folkestone and Dover cliff tops and in other coastal locations, particularly later in the month. Sea radish is another plant of this type that is sometimes found (for example on the seaward slopes of Beachy Head).

The most interesting coastal habitat this month, however, is shingle beaches. One of the first plants to flower there, around the second week of May, is sea kale, which produces masses of white blooms (Cuckmere Haven, Shoreham beach, and the coastal shingle between Seaford and Newhaven are good places to see this), usually fading by the end of the month. By that time red valerian is in full bloom, a rubbery plant with large flower heads which was brought to this country from the Mediterranean in Tudor times. It grows improbably out of cracks in garden walls, but also is very fond of coastal locations of all kinds, and by the end of the month is growing in great profusion on both Kingsdown and Shoreham beaches. You can see white valerian too - not really a different species but just a white-flowered variant. Also later in the month viper's bugloss starts to put up its blue flower spikes, both on shingle and on downland by the sea.

Other interesting plants - not necessarily sea specialists - can make themselves home on the bare ground habitat shingle provides, particularly towards the end of the month. At both Kingsdown and on Shoreham Beach, red hot pokers, a garden escapee, can be seen, as well as delicate crow garlic. The latter also grows on the Kingsdown cliff tops, while Kingsdown beach is awash with oxeye daisies.

Close inspection of undisturbed shingle (try the landside of the shingle bar at Cuckmere Haven or the seaward edge of Walmer Beach) can also reveal the leaves of other coastal specialists such as sea pea, sea mayweed, various stonecrops (which can be brown or green depending on how much moisture they have had), and the aromatic frizzy leaves of fennel. You also see the foliage of yellow-horned poppy and the metallic-coloured leaves of silver ragwort, both of which can be starting to flower at the end of the month. Sea beet - very common - puts up green flower spikes, but its actual blooms are so tiny it is hard to tell if they are out or not. You may also just see patches of rubbery sea sandwort, which can put out its tiny white flowers as early as the second week.

As the month goes on the leaves of spear-leaved orache start to appear, forming mats on bare shingle, along with prostrate patches of woody nightshade (aka bittersweet), which might be starting to flower at the month's end. Rock samphire and rock sea-lavender leaves can be seen on cliffs and in other stony places by the sea, and in salt marshes, on river edges and other rocky ground you can see the pale foliage of sea purslane.

At the head of shingle beaches, where the stones become somewhat infilled with earth, you find a mix of salt-tolerant and bare ground plants. The former include white-flowered hoary cress, buckshorn plantain, the occasional patch of scurvygrass, and shrubby tree mallow, which has pink flowers with dark purple centres. Asters (garden escapees rather than the true sea aster which flowers on cliffs and in salt marshes later in the summer) can also be seen here.

Other species in the marginal zone between shingle and the land include Oxford ragwort, beaked hawksbeard, catsear, common mallow, purple toadflax and ribwort plantain, as well as slender thistle at the very end of the month. Snow-in-summer, a garden escapee, sometimes crops up both at the top of shingle beaches or on clifftops.

On sea-facing slopes the rubbery hottentot fig may be in bloom (though it is very variable in its timing: Folkestone is a good place to see it), and on clifftops near Folkestone and Dover the strange Nottingham catchfly, a relative of the campions, can be seen, its flowers only fully opening towards dusk. On the cliffs above Compton Bay on the Isle of Wight hoary stock grows, "possibly native in this location", and sea spurrey also flowers in the same place. At Hope Gap and Cuckmere Haven you find field pepperwort and on chalk cliffs (and in chalk railway cuttings) you sometimes come across orange wallflower, yet another garden escapee.

A specialist shrub of the seaside is tamarisk, which may have a few of its pink flowers on it in May, but generally waits until later in the summer. Meanwhile holm oak, a shrubby evergreen tree, can be found on the shingle beach at Walmer and puts out yellowish catkins in May.

More May pages:

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