Our coast­line is home to a mul­ti­tude of flora that thrives on a cliff edge. Steven Des­mond pays homage to some of the most re­silient flow­ers known to man

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Our coast­line is home to a mul­ti­tude of flora that thrives on a cliff edge. Steven Des­mond pays homage to some of the most re­silient flow­ers known to man

The brave blooms of our coastal flora are buf­feted in the never-end­ing breeze

AWALK along the coast is a sov­er­eign rem­edy for a wide range of imag­i­nary ail­ments. On the clifftop or along the shingly beach, among the rocks or through the shift­ing dunes, there is a wind-in-the-hair ex­pe­ri­ence to be had, close to the raw power of Na­ture, which puts our footling daily con­cerns in per­spec­tive. And, all along the way, for those who have the wit to look and think, are the brave blooms of our coastal flora, buf­feted in the never-end­ing breeze, at­tract­ing our silent ad­mi­ra­tion for their del­i­cate beauty in the most de­mand­ing of mar­ginal habi­tats.

It never ceases to amaze me that these flow­ers choose such tough places to live. The neat green tufts of thrift ( Arme­ria mar­itima), so well named, poke up be­tween the slen­der­est cracks of black rock on the scram­bly walk down to the ruins of Corn­wall’s Tin­tagel Cas­tle, hang­ing over the At­lantic break­ers. The pink pom-pom flow­ers, eas­ily spot­ted from a dis­tance, seem per­fectly con­tent in a place where it would be phys­i­cally im­pos­si­ble to plant them. It puts all our think­ing about com­post and nu­tri­ents to shame. What a good thing that Na­ture knows so many things that are beyond hu­man un­der­stand­ing.

Nearby is something for the con­nois­seur, in an even less promis­ing crevice: the stubby blue flow­ers of the jaun­tily named spring squill ( Scilla verna), only found in this corner of Eng­land. That there is a fleshy bulb at its base, sand­wiched be­tween smooth faces of rock, seems barely cred­i­ble, but there it is.

On the lonely, nar­row spit of Spurn Point, curv­ing south across the mouth of the Hum­ber, many flo­ral beau­ties lie in wait for those who know. Chief among these is the sil­very-blue in­flo­res­cence of sea holly ( Eryn­gium mar­iti­mum), a quiet vi­sion of love­li­ness among its ruff of shapely leaves. Its roots search wide and deep through the banks of blow­ing sand.

On the other side of the penin­sula, a dif­fer­ent world ap­pears, only yards away, as a great salt marsh ex­tends up­river, its spe­cialised flora best viewed through binoc­u­lars. Long may there be places where hu­mans fear to tread.

Fur­ther north, on the Northum­ber­land coast, the dunes are cov­ered in early sum­mer with a thicket of bur­net rose ( Rosa pimpinel­li­fo­lia), densely prickly and cov­ered with white flow­ers. Be­tween the bushes spread sheets of the bloody crane’s-bill, whose ma­genta flow­ers min­gle with scat­tered groups of pyra­mi­dal or­chids as our boots slowly fill with sand.

In splen­did iso­la­tion on the Cum­brian coast, along the stony shore of Wal­ney Is­land, a sep­a­rate form of the bloody crane’s-bill has evolved, with flow­ers of the most del­i­cate pink sprawl­ing over the shore­line. Gera­nium san­guineum var. lan­cas­triense is a special

find for the hunter of na­tive plants, some­times against the back­drop of a sub­ma­rine drift­ing by.

Shin­gle beaches have their own mys­tery. Ex­plor­ing them is an ex­haust­ing busi­ness due to the slow rate of progress, so that stop­ping to gaze about is a con­sid­er­able at­trac­tion. It seems un­likely that any plant would elect to live and scat­ter its off­spring over such an ap­par­ently bar­ren habi­tat, but, once again, we were wrong.

A favourite sight along such a shore, such as at Loe Bar south of Hel­ston in Corn­wall, are the pros­per­ous clumps of sea kale ( Crambe mar­itima), el­e­gantly dis­trib­uted across the gravel as if Gertrude Jekyll her­self had spent many hours plot­ting their dis­po­si­tion. Those wavy, waxy leaves of bluish-green are crowned with off-white flow­ers, which, so un­ex­pect­edly for a cab­bage, give off a de­li­ciously sweet scent into the mar­itime breeze.

Not far away, per­haps against the firmer rocks that edge the low­est fields, we might find the star­tling yel­low flow­ers of the horned-poppy ( Glau­cium flavum). Its name comes from the out­landishly long and curv­ing seed­cases that stick up be­tween the flow­ers, leav­ing us no doubt as to its iden­tity.

Here and there, tucked away in in­hos­pitable cor­ners along the shore, we find lit­tle trea­sures such as the sea rocket ( Cak­ile mar­itima) and the sea stock ( Matthi­ola sin­u­ata), recog­nis­able by their pas­tel flow­ers as the spartan cousins of their gar­den and coun­try­side coun­ter­parts.

Nos­ing out from grass edges are the pretty pink-and-white trum­pets of the sea bindweed ( Ca­lyste­gia sol­danella), whose name in­vites an un­com­fort­able fris­son, but whose pres­ence in these mar­ginal places we need not fear.

In the tufts of grass along the cliff path, un­touched by her­bi­cides and over­graz­ing, the lit­tle pur­plish-blue flow­ers of the sheep’s-bit scabi­ous ( Ja­sione mon­tana), which isn’t a scabi­ous at all, come as a pleas­ant vari­a­tion on the banks of shiny Alexan­ders ( Smyrnium olusatrum) and wild car­rot ( Dau­cus carota). The nearby blue­bells ( Hy­acinthoides non-scripta) re­mind us that, once upon a time, this stretch of clifftop was a coun­try lane over­hung with trees.

These flow­ers are sur­vivors of life on the edge, where the land will quite likely slip into the sea one of these win­ters. All the more rea­son to go and visit the pass­ing show while it’s still there.

Be­low (left to right): Pyra­mi­dal or­chids, bloody crane’s-bill, wild car­rot, yel­low horned­pop­pies, sheep’s-bit scabi­ous, thrift and spring squill all like to be be­side the sea­side

Life on the edge: thriv­ing ranks of thrift ( Arme­ria mar­itima) on both the coast of Fair Isle, north­ern Scot­land ( above), and over­look­ing the Be­druthan Steps Beach, Corn­wall ( pre­ceed­ing pages), in­di­cate that Na­ture might just be the great­est gar­dener of all

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