Monday, July 4, 2011

Think pink

From: The History of Deal & its Neighbourhood (1862) 
by S. Pritchard (pps 351 & 352)

The walk from Walmer to Kingsdown, it seems, has long been regarded a pleasure. (Although Victoria usually took an inland route from Walmer Castle to avoid the crowds.) Like her, whenever I'm in Kent, I take the opportunity to wander down this lovely bit of coastline, and did so a number of times during my week in Kent in early June.  
Huts on the beach at Kingsdown

I was, I later discovered, inadvertently re-tracing the footsteps of two anonymous Victorian botanists who visited the area in 1860. The accounts of their botanising excursions were published in The Phytologist, in 1861. They travelled all about East Kent, but reserved their most ecstatic and fulsome praise for the plants they found on this short stretch of shingle. 

One of the most striking things you notice today as you amble down to Kingsdown is that there are 2 seas. The big blue wet wobbly one on one side and a pink one on t'other. Kingsdown beach is a pink haze of red valerian (Centranthus ruber).
Red valerian at Kingsdown

Red valerian was introduced to Britain from the Mediterranean in the 16th century and soon escaped into the wild. In 1860, according to our botanical friends, it ‘was well established on the beach at Walmer’ and also at Kingsdown. So the plant has a long history here. 
Red valerian flowers

The recently published Kingsdown & Walmer Beach Management Plan notes that red valerian is one of many non-native garden escapes which have made a home on the shingle. Their control is necessary to avoid rarer native species being lost.
Red valerian on the beach

In the picture above, all the species you can see are aliens in the UK. Red valerian, narrow-leaved ragwort (yellow) and holm (or holly) oak (Quercus ilex) in the distance. 

Holm oaks are beautiful trees in parks and gardens, but here they are potentially invasive and shade out other plants (if you look under a tree, there is barely anything growing). Plantlife are calling for holm oak to be added to Schedule 9 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act (i.e. it would be an offence to plant, or allow it to grow, in the wild).

Another alien that thrives on Kingsdown shingle is tree mallow (Lavatera arborea). This was also spotted by the Victorians, but the colony was small and all seedlings ‘produced from the rejectamenta of the adjoining gardens’. They add ‘The Lavatera will probably remain undisturbed in this locality, and it would be gratifying to learn (if any reader of this resides in Walmer or even goes thither to botanise, would inform us) that it is still growing in that place'.

It’s a little late, but I can give them confirmation that their Lavatera seedlings are doing very, very well indeed!
Tree mallow (Lavatera arborea) in flower

Tree mallow is a lush plant (my photo does it little justice), that grows a few metres high, has amazingly soft woolly leaves and lilac flowers. The leaves were possibly used as a poultice for sprains or (a more ignoble use) as 'toilet paper'. It can tolerate living near the sea because it excretes excess salt via its leaves.

Seemingly delicate plants also survive in the shingle, an incredibly unstable environment. Ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) was also noted in 1860.
Ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) on the shingle

Sea fern grass (Catapodium marinum) is an inconspicuous but jolly attractive little grass. It looks fragile, but when you get down to feel it, it feels plasticky and really tough. I had no idea what it was and am indebted to the experts on ISpot for id.

Sea fern grass Catapodium marinum

Those weird shapes behind the sea fern grass are the horns (seed-pods) of yellow-horned poppies (Glaucium flavum).

There's an interesting collection of sea vegetables, also noted by the old botanists, which still grow on the foreshore (but are not for picking).

A trio of Brassicas. Sea beat (Beta vulgaris) the forebear of beetroot.

Young sea beat (Beta vulgaris)
Sea beat (Beta vulgaris)
Nutlet fruits of sea beat (Beta vulgaris)

Sea kale (Crambe maritima)
Sea kale (Crambe maritima)
Grape-like globular seedpods of sea kale (Crambe maritima)

Wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea) farther along, and in flower, at the Undercliff.
Wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea

And the rare sea pea (Lathyrus japonicus), nationally scarce and protected by law. It was rare in 1860 and was the highlight of the Victorian's day.

Sea pea (Lathyrus japonicus)

I was reliably informed by an extant local expert, this (below) is Babington's orache, Atriplex glabriuscula.

Leaves of Babington's orache, Atriplex glabriuscula

Here are a couple of plants the Victorian gentlemen didn't see.

Narrow-leaved ragwort (Senecio inaequidens) is a recent arrival to the UK (and it's spreading). It wasn’t in my flora so thanks again to ISpot for the identification.
Flowers of Senecio inaequidens (with some red valerian)
Close-up showing the very narrow-leaves of Senecio inaequidens
Narrow-leaved ragwort and viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare)

Silver ragwort (Senecio cineraria also called Jacobaea maritima) is a common garden flower now well established on the shingle. It's also spreading in the wild.

Silver ragwort or dusty miller

I walked on past Kingsdown to the Undercliff.

The view to Undercliff from Kingsdown

Here you can find more rarities, such as oxtongue broomrape (Orobanche artemisiae-campestris). Just look at the 2010 map for the UK population of this plant!

Oxtongue broomrape (Orobanche artemisiae-campestris
is in a rather precarious position at Undercliff (see here and here)

Those Victorian botanophils had more stamina than me. They started at Deal in the morning and walked all the way round to Folkestone, the last part of their walk being in the dark. Botanising all the way! 'We reached our destination rather late and in a rather weary plight’. They even considered botany by candlelight so much were they enjoying their exertions; ‘it was too evident that our botanising had terminated for this day at least, unless we could have botanised by candlelight or even if this had been practicable we had no candles’.

Me? I had an ice-cream at the Zetland Arms and walked back to Walmer. I then walked Victoria's route to Kingsdown and back inland.

I look forward to watching the progress on the implementation of the new beach management plan.

That completes my most recent trip to Kent. What a lovely place it is!
Bloody-nosed beetle at Undercliff

The Phytologist. For the walk from Deal to Folkestone see pps 238-246. There are other botanical trips in Kent in this issue. Full text on Google Books.
R. Gwyn Ellis (1993) Aliens in the British Flora: An Account of Some of Our Plant Invaders. National Museum of Wales.

Prichard, S (1862) The History of Deal & its Neighbourhood (1862) See pps 326 -360 for history of Walmer & Kingsdown. Full text on Google Books.

1 comment:

  1. That's another fascinating post, Mel, with a well-researched bibliography.
    It's always interesting to read historical accounts, to see just how things have changed - some of the quotes (especially the first one) are virtually unrecognisable!