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At this time of year, many of us dream of heading to the seaside if we aren’t lucky enough to live there already. For some, the main attractions are the ice cream, sunbathing and paddling. For me, though, it’s the distinctive natural history of our coastline that’s the draw. This includes the wide variety of plants that have adapted to live in what can be quite a harsh and unforgiving environment. Let’s meet some of these plants of the coast, our seaside specialists.
Also known as sea pink, thrift is one of our most quintessential seaside plants. Found on cliffs, rocky coasts and saltmarshes, the main body of the plant forms dense cushions of leaves. Between April and August, the beautiful pink papery flowers appear, raised proud of the cushions on tall stalks. Because of its preference for salty habitats, it can also appear on salted roadside verges. It grows throughout the UK but is particularly common in Scotland.
This gorgeous little blue flower lives on coastal grasslands in the north and west of the UK. It only grows to a maximum of about 15 cm high. An arrangement of six blue/violet petals and sepals makes up the star-shaped flowers, with flowering between May and June. Like many of our plants of the coast, they are tolerant of salt and have no problem with sea-spray.
This distinctive plant prefers sandy coasts and dunes. It can be found around the UK but is less common in Scotland. The spiky blue-green leaves and round flower heads make it look superficially like a type of thistle, but it is actually a member of the carrot family. The waxy covering to the leaves helps it retain moisture in the dry conditions of its sandy home. Blue flowers bloom between June and September.
Daisy-like sea mayweed is an inhabitant of shingle, walls, cliffs and bare ground near the sea. Another salt-tolerant plant, it flowers between June and September and is found around most of the UK. The leaves are thin, green and feathery. Like many other coastal specialists, it sometimes grows inland near roads that are regularly salted.
The small white flowers of common scurvygrass form dense clusters above its low-lying leaves. These have a succulent-like waxy structure to help the plant cope in salty environments. It used to live exclusively on rocks, saltmarshes and walls very near the sea, but salting has helped it spread along many of our roads’ central reservations and verges. The leaves are high in vitamin C and sailors once used them to ward off scurvy on long sea voyages, hence the name. However, this may have been a futile exercise as the drying processes used would have oxidised any vitamin C.
This pretty campion flowers between May and September around much of the UK’s coastline. Usually found on cliffs and shingle, it is part of the campion and catchfly genus that includes the more familiar red campion. Its five white petals are split almost completely, making it look as though there are actually ten petals. The sepals below the flowers form a pink-purple cup that is distinctive.
Although not exclusively coastal, kidney vetch is especially fond of sand dunes and cliffs around our shores. The round clover-like clusters of flowers are usually yellow, but can also be orange and red, even within the same flower head. Like clover, they are a member of the pea family. It is also sometimes called woundwort due to being used to treat swellings and wounds in the past, as well as kidneys problems.
This low-growing succulent is only found on the UK’s sand and shingle beaches above the tideline. The thick and fleshly green leaves are essential for retaining moisture and its lack of height protects it from high winds and storms. Forming dense clumps, it also has tiny white flowers although these are often easy to miss. Found in suitable habitat around the whole of the country’s coast, it is edible and a source of vitamins A and C.
Common Sea Lavender
Not actually a lavender, this saltmarsh dweller shares the colour but none of the strong aroma of its namesake. It is still popular with pollinators, however. The purple, blue or pink flowers can be seen atop tall stiff stems between July and October. It likes salty, muddy environments like creeks and saltmarshes by the sea and can form dense carpets of flowers. The plant is reasonably common in suitable habitat around England and Wales, but less so in Scotland. The north Norfolk coast is a particularly good place to see it.
Marram grass is a really important coastal plant. Because its roots are matted, it helps to stabilise the sand dunes it grows on, which in turn creates a less precarious habitat for other plants. It grows in spiky tussocks that can withstand having fresh sand thrown on top by the wind, simply growing through the new layers. Because of its long roots, it can cope with low water tables and is found anywhere in the UK with sand dunes.
Another plant able to withstand both a lot of salt and high winds is the sea plantain. It’s long roots anchor it securely and a strong, flexible stem helps it to bend but not break in stormy coastal conditions. It is happy on mudflats, rocky shores, saltmarshes and concrete near the sea. Tall flowering spikes are produced with yellow or cream anthers on long filaments emerging from tiny hard-to-see flowers.
This member of the cabbage family grows on sand and occasionally shingle beaches around the UK. Always found above the high tide mark, it has the characteristic fleshy moisture-retaining leaves of a coastal plant. The four-petalled flowers appear between June and September and are usually pale pink, lilac or mauve. Sea rocket is what’s known as a pioneer species. By putting down roots at the strandline, sand particles are able to clump around them and form dunes. This provides habitat so plants such as marram grass and sea sandwort can follow.
Found around much of the UK’s coastline, sea milkwort is another succulent that can survive high salt levels and even being completely submerged. The plant forms low-lying mats on saltmarshes and shingle and tends not to grow above the high-water mark. It flowers between May and August, with the small pink flowers not actually made up of any petals at all. Instead, they are made up of five sepals. These are modified leaves that usually form a protective case for a developing flower bud.
This is another plant that is not exclusively coastal, but sand dunes and shingle are two of its favoured habitats. Also found on pavements and walls, it can survive for months without water. Stonecrop grows in low mats that hug the ground and it produces bright yellow star-shaped flowers between May and July. Although the flowers are rich in nectar and popular with insects, the leaves have a peppery ‘biting’ taste to us and should not be eaten.
This beautiful plant of shingle and sandy beaches is only found in the north of the British Isles. Orkney and Shetland are strongholds, but it also grows on suitable beaches in the north of Scotland, England and in Northern Ireland. Because it prefers lower temperatures, climate change seems to be forcing it to leave former southern sites and move further north. The pretty blue flowers appear between June and August, and the grey-green succulent leaves are supposed to taste of oysters, hence the name!
As an island nation we have a hell of a lot of shoreline, but that coast isn’t in any way uniform or homogeneous. Dunes, rocks, shingle and cliffs, saltmarshes and mud flats are just some of the different habitats found around those thousands of kilometres of coastline. Each of these will be home to a range of different plants.
Many are succulents, able to store water for a long time in their fleshy leaves. Some have sturdy stems to allow them to bend with the wind. A fair few stick to forming low mats so as not to get too much of a battering from the elements. All these plants of the coast, though, are adapted to living in these salty, dry and windswept conditions. These are just some of my favourites but there are so many more, including sea bindweed, glasswort and sea aster. Which ones do you look out for on a trip to the seaside?
This extremely comprehensive new guide covers more than 600 plants of the coast. Don’t be mislead by the title either; it doesn’t just cover flowering plants, but includes trees, shrubs and some non-plants such as seaweeds. There is also an overview for each of the different habitats you might encounter from shingle to cliffs and saltmarshes. It’s not cheap, but is well worth the expense for anyone interested in our coastal plants.
For something less habitat-specific and portable, Dorling Kindersley’s What’s That Flower? is a really handy pocket guide. By putting confusion species next to each other, identifying trickier flowers is made easier as well.
If you want to explore all of our coastal wildlife, not just the plants, this Collins guide is a great companion. Mammals, birds, fish, sponges, plants, molluscs; if it lives on our coast, you will almost certainly find it in this book.