Nature Notes from Skye
(and occasionally other places)
Sat 24 - Sun 25 Sep 2005 Southend area (Part 1)
On the Sunday there was a British Plant Gall Society meeting in the Southend area of South Essex to look for saltmarsh galls. On the Saturday I and one of the other members who was down for the meeting went to the same area to look for a few special plants that we did not expect to see during the meeting. Many thanks to Len Worthington and Brian Wurzell for pointing out the locations of some very rare plants and galls.
In this part of the country there are miles upon miles of saltmarsh, and when the tide goes out miles upon miles of mud as well. It's a highly atmospheric place, with endless channels and creeks, rotting hulls of boats, and everywhere the sight and sound of birds.
Plants of the Goosefoot family are particularly well adapted to this habitat. Many people find these boring, with their tiny greenish flowers and lack of obvious distinguishing features, and I tend to agree when it's a matter of trying to identify a Goosefoot growing as a casual on a rubbish tip and realising it could easily take several hours research. But the saltmarsh community consists of native British species that are as long-established as the coast itself, each adapted to a precise niche in the intricate interface between salt water and soil. I found it fascinating to wander through what must be one of the South of England's few remaining natural environments, and get to know the plants that make it such a unique place.
Goosefoots can be quite good-looking at times. This is Red Goosefoot, common in the drier parts of the Essex marshes. The small one with the purple underside to the leaves is Saltmarsh Goosefoot, which is much rarer, being almost confined to the Thames estuary in Britain.
There were an intriguing variety of Glassworts but these are very hard to identify, and the big bushy one on the left will have to go down as Salicornia europaea aggregate. The one on the right is Purple Glasswort (S ramosissima)
Now a couple of Oraches, both unusual in having well-stalked fruits (and both very easy to identify). The first is called Annual Sea Purslane and is extremely rare; in fact it was believed extinct in Britain from 1938 to 1987. The second is Long-stalked Orache, also uncommon, which resembles the familiar kinds of Orache but has the fruits long-stalked and sometimes very large with their bracteoles almost like leaves.
A more widespread Orache, also easy to identify because of its shrubby habit, is Common Sea Purslane (I guess we can call Sea-Purslanes Oraches now that they've been merged into the Atriplex genus). Moving on from the Goosefoot family, the grey mass in the middle of the RH pic consists of the dead leaves of Dwarf Eelgrass, a flowering plant which grows in the sea but is washed up, like seaweed, to rot in patches around the high-tide mark. The live plants are the main food source for the many Brent Geese that overwinter on this coast. The leaves are much narrower than those of Common Eelgrass which is sometimes washed up around the Skye coast.
A couple of Saltmarsh-grasses. In Skye we only have Common Saltmarsh-grass. The dead inflorescence of Reflexed Saltmarsh-grass, on the left, has a similar appearance to the Common kind, but Stiff Saltmarsh-grass, on the right, is more distinctive with its very short branches.
Another pair of stiff-looking grasses. The first, Common Cord-grass, is not one of the species that's as old as the coast itself, since it did not exist as a species until about 1890, when it arose naturally in Hampshire as an amphidiploid hybrid between a local species and an American species that arrived via ships' ballast. It is now widespread around the English coastline. The right-hand pic shows Bermuda Grass, not a saltmarsh plant but growing on a sandy shore at Shoeburyness. It is native despite its name.
There is some colour among the saltmarsh vegetation. The Michaelmas-daisy-like flowers of Sea Aster are common there, as they are on Skye, but I only took photos of the variety discoideus, which I have yet to find on Skye but was quite plentiful in Essex. This has all the purple ray florets missing and is less photogenic than the normal kind it has to be said. Another brightly coloured flower of the same family is Golden Samphire, on the right, but unfortunately it had finished flowering. It is unrelated to Rock Samphire but was sometimes eaten as a substitute for it in days gone by.
On the Saturday we searched a long time for Slender Hare's-ear without success. We were shown it on the Sunday but it must be one of the most difficult plants to photograph, and with other people finding exciting things all over the place I didn't make a very good job of it in the time available. It is an Umbellifer but has very few flowers per umbel. Here the flowers are finished and the fruits are visible. With it, though not really a saltmarsh plant, was Narrow-leaved Birdsfoot Trefoil, shown on the right.
Some more plants from the area at the top of the shore. The first definite Common Agrimony we've had on the site - the ones from Skye have been either Fragrant Agrimony or unspecified, and the Essex plants were notably smaller than the Skye ones, as well as having the diagnostic fruits. On the right, Hoary Ragwort, whose leaves had completely lost their hoariness by this time of year and were very dark green.
Part 2 will deal mostly with galls and suchlike.
All photos and other content copyright © Carl Farmer