Posted by: Ross Gardner | June 12, 2020

A thin hold of a different kind

Gaucium flavum

The intense hue of Yellow Horned-poppy (Glaucium flavum).

Every once in a while nature might remind us of the tenacity that can see it maintain even the most slender of toeholds, sometimes firmly against the face of human doings.  Southend seafront has long been a place for the entertainment of people, since its Victorian heyday when hordes would visit for a taste of the medicinal sea air, right up to the present day with day-trippers from East London travelling across by train for the open space and presumably the same maritime atmosphere so sought after by those in the past.  The coastal habitats that would once have abutted the seashore are long, long gone.  But not quite.

East of the main seafront, with its eateries and amusement arcades, where the footfall may be more discerning and the ‘entertainments’ are few, is to be found a fragment, a surprising relic of a natural community long past.  For maybe a kilometre along the top of beach and up against the seawall is to be found a strip – in places maybe 6 or 7 metres wide, but mostly rather narrower – of vegetation to recall a glimpse of those bygone times.  It is that sparse community of plants, incorporating some of those so highly specialised as to tolerate the water and nutrient scarce beach habitat.  And there are others that one might imagine would begin to stabilise the wind-shifting sand to create the succession of habitats inland, perhaps taking in banks of low dunes and flower-studded grassland behind them.  This is all conjecture, of course, but it makes for a fine place for the mind to wander.

So here, with their own thin hold on life, are to be found Yellow Horned-poppy (Glaucium flavum) and Sea-holly (Eryngium maritmum), two of those specialists able to eke out a life amid the the shingle and sand.  The latter, given its spiny-leaved, globe-flowered appearance, is an attractive but rather unlikely member of the Apiacae, a family to which such umbel-bloomed plants as Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) and Hogweed (Hercleum sphonylium) belong.  Behind them a sparse stand of grasses spreads itself thinly around the Bird’s-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), dandelion-flowered Cat’s-ear (Hypochaeris radicata), rosettes of Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and others that have found their niches and scatter the stony sand with chlorophyl and colour.  And where there are flowers there are insects; I saw at least three species of bumblebee foraging among the sprinkle of blooms.

We can still find much better examples of such pioneering coastal habitat elsewhere, but for what it represents this little remnant is something far greater than its physical parts.

Eryngium maritimum

The prickly beauty of Sea-holly (Eryngium maritimum).


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