Nature Menu

Introduction Beginner's Guide Where to find wild flowers Where to find butterflies Week by Week SWC_Nature

Nature and Weather in South East England

May downland and seaside flowers

Other May pages: Woodland, meadow and field flowersWayside flowersTrees and shrubsBirdsButterflies and insectsWeather

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 later in the month creeping buttercups can make dense carpets 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. Violets can survive on downland into the early part of the month, while wild strawberry and bugle may make it into the third or fourth week.

Daisies are evident throughout May on the short grass of paths and also closely grazed downland. The little yellow globes of black medick can form large patches towards the end of the month.

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 yellow flowers of silverweed, which appear as the month goes on, because they look almost exactly like buttercups. The clue is in the 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. From the second or third week 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. Later in the month they can be very common on some downland.

Towards the end of the month you may see some rough hawkbit, another flower that looks very similar to a dandelion (only with much more hairy stems) and which will go on to be very common on downland in the summer months. Looking very different from all these - tall and branched, but still with dandelion-like flowers - are rough or beaked hawksbeard, normally plants of lowland verges and rough fields, but which may just crop up on downland.

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 or dropwort.

More unusual downland flowers include kidney vetch and the strange seemingly half-open flowers of houndstongue. Rather surprisingly you also sometimes see wood spurge, while field madder, normally an arable weed, can crop up on bare patches.

In addition you may see flowers that also occur in lowland grassland. These include ribwort plantain, common vetch, common mouse-ear, common sorrel and crosswort, as well as - towards the end of the month - oxeye daisy and red or white clover. Bladder campion also seems to like downland, and you may come across field (and possibly early) forget-me-not.

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 will probably only notice the leaves of dwarf thistle when you sit on them, though the plants of creeping thistle are growing up as the month goes on. Very occasionally at the very end of month you may see marsh, welted, musk or slender thistle in flower, the latter usually near the sea.

Downland is also known for orchids but June is the best month for them. 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) and man orchid.

In a few selected sites - such as Samphire Hoe near Dover and Castle Hill near Lewes - the rare early spider orchid flowers in the first half of May. At the very end of the month there can be the occasional bee orchid, as well as common spotted or fragrant orchids starting.

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, a few spots on the cliffs near Hastings, and above Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight: also on the shingle beach at Shoreham-by-Sea.

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. The cliffs above Folkestone Warren are a particularly good place to see it.

Also on the sea cliffs near Dover and Folkestone you can 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 in the same place and in other coastal locations. 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. By the end of the month it is flowering widely all around the coast of the south east, and in great profusion on Deal, Walmer, 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.

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 coastal specialists such as sea pea, sea mayweed, various stonecrops (which can be brown or green depending on how much moisture they have had).

You see also 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. Meanwhile on the edges of shingle beaches thread-like leaves with a liquorice scent are the key to identifying fennel (not yet in flower).

Sea beet - very common - puts up green flower spikes, but its actual blooms are so tiny it is hard to tell if they are actually out without very close examination. Much rarer are patches of rubbery sea sandwort, which can put out its tiny white flowers as early as the second week, but often seems to be only part in flower even later: Deal beach is one place to see it.

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.

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 hoary cress, buckshorn plantain, the occasional patch of scurvygrass, and shrubby tree mallow, which has pink flowers with dark purple centres.

Some unlikely plants can make themselves home in this habitat, 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 pink rosy garlic (possibly also crow garlic, which has a lot fewer flowers).

Rosy garlic also grows on the Kingsdown cliff tops, while Kingsdown beach is awash with oxeye daisies. Asters (garden escapees rather than the true sea aster which flowers on cliffs and in salt marshes later in the summer) are also very much at home on shingle, as well as in other seafront locations.

Other species in his marginal zone include Oxford ragwort, narrow-leaved ragwort (mainly on Walmer beach), beaked hawksbeard, mouse-ear hawkweed, catsear, common mallow, purple toadflax, hedge mustard and ribwort plantain, as well as slender thistle (a coastal specialist) at the very end of the month. Small-flowered cranesbill seems quite well established in places on Shoreham beach.

Snow-in-summer, a garden escapee, also occasionally crops up both at the top of shingle beaches or on cliff tops (again, above Folkestone Warren), and you sometimes come across patches of pink sorrel. On chalk cliffs (and in chalk railway cuttings) you occasionally find orange wallflower, yet another garden escapee.

The leaves of rock samphire and rock sea-lavender leaves are seen on cliffs too, as well as in other stony places by the sea, and in salt marshes, on river edges and rocky ground near the sea you can see the pale foliage of sea purslane.

A very inconspicuous seaside plant, though quite common once you get your eye in, is the oddly named pellitory-of-the-wall. As its name suggests, it can be seen on harbour walls (as at Folkestone), sea walls (St Margaret's Bay) or in odd corners on seafront esplanades. It's not very noticeable reddish flowers may be appearing in May.

On sea-facing slopes the rubbery hottentot fig may be in bloom (though it is very variable in its timing: Folkestone seafront is a good place to see it), and on cliff tops near Folkestone and Dover you get the strange Nottingham catchfly, a relative of the campions, 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 is found in the same place. At Hope Gap and Cuckmere Haven you may come across field pepperwort.

A specialist shrub of the seaside is tamarisk, which may have a few of its pink flowers on it in May, but is generally not at its best until June (or even later in the summer). Meanwhile holm oak, a shrubby evergreen tree, can be found on the shingle beach at Walmer and puts out yellowish flower tassels in May.

More May pages:

© Peter Conway 2006-2024 • All Rights Reserved

No comments:

Post a Comment