By Helen RobertsBeachcombing is fun no matter what your age. Shells, pieces of driftwood and cloudy coloured glass somehow find a way into pockets, rucksack compartments and lunchboxes. A holiday to Slapton, in the South Hams, over the summer cemented our family’s curiosity in scouring the beaches. But whilst beachcombing, I was also similarly intrigued by the plants growing in this environment.
The coast here has a constantly shifting flora highly specialised for growing in difficult conditions. There is a shingle ridge that runs parallel to the shoreline, dividing the lake (Slapton Ley) from the sea. The plants that I discovered along the ridge path that runs northeast from the village of Torcross looked so intrinsically a part of the place, that to me they amplified the essence of this unique shingle coast.
All of the species on the shingle ridge have evolved ways of coping with difficult coastal conditions. The plants here are frequently subjected to saline spray and blown salts, high winds, exposure to hot summer temperatures and low soil humidity. The physical makeup of the shingle (it is a mix of flint, chert and quartz intermixed with some finer material) means that the substrate is very free draining and this results in the acute leaching of nutrients.
Most species that grow here have developed a cuticle (the protective film covering the leaf) that resists the entry of salt water or the leaves are sclerophyllous (thick, waxy and leathery). Often leaves are succulent and allow more effective retention of water.
Thick leaves and deep roots
|Giant leaved sea kale (Crambe maritima)|
Photo credit: Peganum [via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0]
Other plants on the shingle bar include the beautifully architectural rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum) and the giant leaved sea kale (Crambe maritima), the latter becoming popularised through its abundance in Derek Jarman’s extraordinary shingle garden near Dungeness. Sea kale taproots reach depths of up to 2 metres, providing them with a significant anchor in coastal winds.
|Restharrow (Ononis repens) is a common beach dweller.|
Photo credit: Matt Lavin [via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0]
These species have adapted to this environment. Although the ridge is only a narrow two metre strip of shingle, it displays a wonderful mosaic of disturbed ruderal* vegetation that forms a linear ribbon of interesting shapes, forms and flowers. Observing this particular plant habitat has helped me in the development of my own gravel garden at home. Some of these species are better suited to a garden environment and so I will begin with these. Although, more often than not it’s a matter of trial and error when trying to take plants outside of the conditions in which they thrive. Beth Chatto’s famous mantra, ‘Right plant, right place’ springs to mind and is always in my thoughts when I am planting my own garden or designing for other people.
*Ruderal is a term in botany that refers to plants that grow on waste ground or among rubbish.
Helen Roberts is a trained landscape architect with a background in plant sciences. She is a probationary member of the Garden Media Guild and a regular contributor to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden blog.