July already. How on earth did that happen? A sunny day today, and a welcome change from the recent wet weather. The day before yesterday it wasn’t actually raining in the afternoon, although it had all morning, and the feeling of going stir-crazy after all the rain was immense, so it was a relief to go and see what else had come into flower in the sand dunes, which seem to be changing all the time.
The sea holly is just coming in to flower, one of my favourites (Eryngium marititinum). There seems to be less of it in the dunes than in previous years, but that may just be an impression. The leaves are a lovely silvery-blue colour and the flowers are a stunning powdery cornflower blue, forming little domes. It loves full sun and dry coastal and rocky habitats. Surprisingly, given its appearance, it is a member of the carrot family.
Common/yellow toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) looks so exotic, like an orchid, but is relatively commonplace. It is a perennial that flowers between July and October. Narrow leaves grow spirally up the stems. The flower is two-lipped and only large long-tongued bees can push the two closed lips apart to reach the nectar. Colloquial names include squeeze-jaw and bunny-mouth. It likes open fields and sandy soils.
Hound’s-tongue (Cynoglossum officinale) is new to me. It has many small dark crimson flowers, each with five petals, on hairy stems. After flowering, the fruit is a spiked nutlet that starts green and goes through deep purple to brown. They hook on to the fur of a passing animal. The ones in the dunes were courteous enough to have both flowers and nutlets on show.
Hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) grows on the wasteland and the edge of cultivated land and footpaths, with a preference for semi shade. The toothed leaves look rather like nettles. They grow up to 1m tall. It was renowned from the 16th Century for its healing properties, and it has proved to be mildly antiseptic. White markings on the lower lip of the two-lip flower guides bees to nectar.
Rosebay willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium) is a spreading perennial up to 1.5m tall. It colonized bomb sites during the Second World War and became known as “fireweed.” It spreads both by rhizomes and by seed, so where it is found, it is usually widespread, and the the rhizomes mean that a whole patch may actually be a single plant. Delicate Four-petalled pink flowers with white stamens that climb the stem go over first at the bast and continue to be in bud at the top, meaning that they may stay in flower from June to September. Its leaves used to be used as in infusion to substitute for tea.
Before flowering, old man’s beard, or traveller’s joy (Clematis vitalba) looks just like clematis and is probably the next most widespread plant in the dunes after marram grass, hugging the lower lying areas. It spreads over everything, and provides a natural protective home for the wild pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis) that grows in the dunes. The name old man’s beard refers to the hairy, air-born seed heads that appear in autumn and extend into winter. The flower begins as a tiny, spherical white bud and bursts into lovely, starry white flowers with four white sepals and a burst of stamens.
Common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) is common in the area, in the hills, fields, wasteland, and in the dunes. It is poisonous to birds, horses and cattle, particularly when dry, but for some reason sheep seem to be immune. It may be either biennial or perennial. Although it can be mistaken for goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea) from the flower alone, the leaves are very different. Where goldenrod has long, thin leaves, common ragwort’s leaves are untidy, dissected and multiple-lobed. Senecio is almost the only specie that can be used for food by the day-flying red and black cinnabar moth’s (Tyria jacobaea) caterpillar, striped bright orange and black, absorbing the plant’s poison as a defense against birds. In spite of the fact that they can be seen between May and August, there were none on view that day.
Broad-leaved everlasting pea (Lathyrus latifolius) is a French perennial that has colonized many other countries. A vigorous scrambling plant that uses tendrils to colonize hedges and shurbs. It was brought from France to Britain as a garden plant and has gone native. The flowers are larger than most of the other pea family of flowers, up to 3cm across, with shades of dark pink and purple.
Marsh pennywort (Hydrocotyle vulgaris) is very similar to the more widespread wall pennywort (Umbilicus rupestris), but grows in marshy areas, whilst wall pennywort grows, as the names suggests, out of walls (and is widespread in Aberdovey). This particular marsh pennywort was growing out of the side of one of the drainage streams on the golf course. It is less waxy and succulent than wall pennywort, as it doesn’t need to store as much water. Both are edible as leaves in salads and as garnishes with much the same flavour. The flavour can be variable, so although it tastes a bit like cucumber, it can be bitter, and a leaf should be tasted before picking more.
White stonecrop (Sedum album) has now spread over huge areas of the lower parts of the sand dunes, particularly near the road where the sand is mixed with soil, its succulent leaves forming mats, and its white star-like flowers clustering at the top of the short, slender stems. Drought tolerant, thanks to the succulent leaves that store water. Like Sea rocket (Cakile maritima) it has apparently benefited from the lack of people around, colonizing areas that would otherwise be used for reaching the caravan park, the golf course and the beach.
The perennial sea beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima) and the orache are side by side at the edge of the dunes, both huge clumps, both common at the edges of sand dunes. Sea beet has a tall, spiky clumps of flowers straggling across the top of the plant. Sea beet is both drought and saline tolerant. It is the wild version of a version that was cultivated in the Middle East for its roots and leaves. Sea beet is easily confused with fat hen (Chenopodium album) and both are members of the Chenopodiaceae, but the leaves have very different edges. Sea beet leaves have a smooth, untoothed margin, whereas fat hen leaves look more like orache, with a toothed margin. Sea beet is a popular foraging ingredient, with smaller, younger leaves used in salads and bigger leaves spinach in a tiny amount of water for a few minutes, like spinach. Squeeze out the water, return to the pan with some butter, and you have a much tangier version of spinach. On my to-do list.
Artemisia absinthium or wormwood seems to come in a variety of forms, many with a lot more foliage than this, but there are a lot of photographs of it online looking just like this. Small fdsfsfas of tiny yellow flowers tit on a network of silvery stems with silvery leaves. I haven’t put it to the test, because I didn’t know what it was when I took the photograph, but it is the primary flavouring of absinthe, much beloved of Toulouse-Lautrec and his contemporaries.
The last triumph of the day was the discovery of some field mushrooms and some baby puffballs. I had the puffballs tossed in butter and added at the last minute to a slow cooker stew with French smoked sausages, onion, garlic, dried ceps, savoy cabbage and peeled baby new potatoes. The puffballs were mushroomy but delicate, a real treat.