Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Frankly beautiful

So, to continue from my previous post.....I did eventually drag myself away from the footpath along the A20 to go to see the plants growing at the foot of Shakespeare Cliff, Dover. It was a beautiful evening (28th July), so I was in no hurry. The rock samphire growing near the underpass was a taster of what was to come.
Have to say, I tried a wee snip of a leaf when I was on Samphire Hoe a few days before, and wasn't too enamoured by the unusual taste. Perhaps it improves with cooking and some butter. (The black bits on the path are the seeds of Alexanders).

Before heading down the footpath to the beach I paused to look back towards Dover harbour and watch a Class 395 Javelin train (godsons please correct if I've got that wrong) zip past on its way to St Pancras.

Looking the other way you get a first view of the vast bulk of Shakespeare Cliff. My botanical quarry is at the foot of the cliff above the seawall.

From the footbridge you can almost peek through the tunnels to Samphire Hoe.
You have to clamber up the sea-wall (not that hard if you go to the far end) to see the flowers of the chalk cliffs (I'd never have known to go there if it hadn't been for local guidance, for which I was most grateful).

First off, as mentioned above, is rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum (not a name that favours the edentulous)). Samphire is a corruption of the French name, Saint Pierre. The Germans call it sea fennel. Theseus ate samphire before fighting the Minotaur (Davidson & Jaine, 2006). So not a food for wimps.

Collecting samphire wasn't for wimps either. It was considered such a delicacy that men would risk their lives climbing the cliffs to reach it. It's best picked before flowering. I took the picture below, of the leaves, in June at Kingsdown. 
A welcome and most gorgeous sighting was this (I am pretty sure) rose chafer (Cetonia aurata) on the samphire flowers.
I found 3 individuals and took some quality time to just sit and gaze at them. Ah me, these beetles are just lovely.
There were also lots of mustard-yellow beetles all over the samphire flowers. I wondered if they were Cteniopus sulphureus
The plant I had trekked all the way to see, however, was the diminutive coastal specialist and rarity; sea heath (Frankenia laevis). (I believe that is a lacewing egg on the leaf at the top of the photo).
Sea heath, looks a bit like a heather, and is a little evergreen shrub, also found growing in saltmarsh communities. It was apparently named after a 17th century Swedish Professor of Botany, Johan Frankenius. Very pretty and mostly covered in chalk dust from the cliffs above.

Nearby were the pastel lilac-purple and white papier-mâché blooms of what I believe is rock sea lavender (Limonium binervosum). Common names are confusing as it's not actually a lavender at all. Another jolly pretty flower. 

A very special plant community all told. I was most chuffed to have seen it. 
Albeit under rather unstable looking cliffs....
There was barely a soul on the huge expanse of beach, just a few fishermen. I sat on the sea-wall to enjoy the view before heading home for a late tea.
I'll leave the final words to Matthew Arnold (Dover Beach, 1867)

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand; 

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Davidson A and Jaine T (2006) Oxford Companion to Food. OUP. 


  1. What a contrast, with those tiny flowers beneath such massive cliffs. Your photos are wonderful -- thanks for the trip to somewhere (to me) so exotic!

  2. Thanks for dropping in on my blog. You have an interesting blog and I'll drop in on you from time to time.

  3. Well done with the Sea Heath pic, and for finding a way to include the word "edentulous" in a botany blog :-)

    I doubt that many would relate the title to that part of Dover but a closer look (beyond Aycliff and the dual carriageway) has been rewarded.

    Both Golden and Rock Samphire are an acquired taste.... local restaurants serve up Glasswort and call it Samfer.

  4. Steve, I couldn't resist. 'Edentulous' is high up on my list of all time favourite words :-)