Sand dunes rely on the stabilising effect of Marram (Ammophila arenaria) and, to a lesser extent, Sea Holly (Eryngium maritimum). Marram is a classic pioneer plant, as tough as old boots but needing open terrain - if it grows too densely there is a tendency to die back. Marram grows tall, higher than a metre, and the strong rootstock helps bind the sand together.
Sea Holly, which flowers from June to September, can virtually cover some parts of the habitat. Though delightful to look at, and appealing for nectaring invertebrates, they have sharp spikes on the leaves and are not to be brushed against casually by anyone with unprotected legs.
Once the dunes are stabilised, other arrivals include Rest-harrow (Ononis repens), which is common all across the country but looks at its best at such places as Dungeness in Kent, and Pansies (Viola sp), which show their colour and form perfectly on sand. Viper's Bugloss (Echium vulgare), from the Borage family, is also seen at its breathtaking best on the Kent coast. It thrives in dry, bare habitats, often on lime.
Plants which can cope with being inundated twice a day by the sea include Sea Milkwort, Spurges, Sea Rocket and Sea Sandwort.
Sea Milkwort (Glaux maritima) is a prostrate perennial growing to 30cm with flowers seen all through the summer. Sea Spurge (Euphorbia paralias) grows to 60cm and is more widespread than Portland Spurge (Euphorbia portlandica), which is earlier flowering, narrower and invariably shows red. Both cope with bare ground well.
Sea Rocket (Cakile maritima) is a gorgeous member of the stock family usually found on the drift line and above. Sea Sandwort (Honckenya peploides) is another prostrate plant at home on sand or shingle.
Sea Kale (Crambe maritima) is found only in coastal counties and usually on shingle. It is the forebear of the cultivated cabbage and grows to a hefty size with white flowers; the pictured plant is a youngster, with characteristic purple colouring. Sea Kale, which can produce up to 10,000 seeds a year from one plant, is protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 but seems stable in its current locations.
Yellow Horned Poppies (Glaucium flavum) are among the most striking of all specialised coastal plants and can be found sprawling from June to September in shingle beds just about wherever those cracking locations for flora are found. The image was taken at Dungeness, where there is a mass of the plant, often intermixed with other poppies. At up to 30cm, the curved seed capsules are the longest of any British plant.
Images © Jeremy Early. All rights reserved.
In 2013 I published My Side of the Fence - the Natural History of a Surrey Garden. Details may be found, and orders placed, via this hyperlink My Side of the Fence. In November 2015 Surrey Wildlife Trust published the atlas Soldierflies, their allies and Conopidae of Surrey, jointly written by David Baldock and me. Details are on this web page: Atlas.