Tag Archives: water mint

It’s a daffodil, but not as we know it.

Two sea daffodils at Dawlish Warren
two sea daffodils

Last week I made the short train journey along the Devon coast to Dawlish Warren hoping to see some of the special late summer flowers that flourish on the nature reserve.  Dawlish Warren is also a very popular holiday spot in August and, as I walked from the station, I joined shoals of people making their way to the beach laden with bags and body boards.  It was all very good humoured and, as I sat on the promenade drinking my coffee and dodging wasps, children played on the beach below, shrieking as they ran in and out of the water.

[For more information on Dawlish Warren look here]

It was a gentle day with sunshine and cotton wool clouds as I followed the sandy boardwalk away from the promenade across the narrow line of dunes and down to the quiet of the nature reserve.  The uneven, wooden walkway meandered across swathes of rough grass where many evening primrose stood on tall reddish-green stems, their papery flowers fluttering in the breeze like clouds of lemon-yellow butterflies.

The central part of the reserve used to be a lake, Greenland Lake, long since drained but never really having lost its watery feel. There were still a few puddles remaining after recent heavy rain and the profuse flora was dominated by damp-loving plants, especially tall, thick rushy grasses.   Drifts of purple loosestrife, spiky and colourful, stood above the dark green grassy understory.  Fluffy lilac globes of water mint and creamy cushions of meadowsweet also shone, along with large numbers of the yellow daisy-like fleabane. Late season insects enjoyed the many food sources.

Further on, as the ground became a little drier and the grass shorter, I was surprised to see one or two spikes of marsh helleborine.  They had been flowering in their hundreds when I visited about six weeks previously but I thought they would have been finished by now.  These unusual flowers are members of the orchid family and each pinkish flower stem carries several white flowers with delicate pink veins and a frilly lip, backed by pink sepals.  There is something unsettling about marsh helleborine when they appear in large numbers, casting their pale colours across the damp green grassland.

There’s another orchid I have seen growing here in profusion in previous years.  It’s the last of the season’s orchids to appear and I had almost given up hope of finding any when, finally, I stumbled across a few.  Each vertical spike is very distinctive, a slightly hairy grey-green spiral, looking as though several strands of fine rope had been wound around one other.  Perhaps it’s just the name, autumn lady’s tresses, but they also remind me of the plaits the girls wove from their long hair when I was at school.  The white tubular flowers emerge from this grey-green spiral to decorate the spike in a helical manner, either clockwise or counter clockwise.  Bumblebees pollinate the flowers and apparently, they prefer the counter clockwise arrangement.

My next stop was the inner bay, with its views up the river Exe towards mudflats popular with wading birds.  Today the water had retreated, leaving the semi-circular bay a shining sheet of dark mud, revealing many clumps of bright green glasswort (marsh samphire).  Groups of glistening, jointed stems pushed up from the mud, their multiple branches resembling miniature versions of the giant cacti often seen in Western Movies.  Each stem was also dotted with particles that resembled grains of sand but in fact were tiny yellow flowers.

There was quite a bit of woody, reedy debris on the beach although very little plastic at this time of year.  I found a suitable log and sat down to have my sandwiches.  Boats puttered across the river between Starcross and Exmouth and a few seabirds moved about the mud.  Then suddenly, as if from nowhere, a cloud of small grey birds appeared above the bay.  There were perhaps as many as two hundred, moving as a group backwards and forwards above the water but continually changing formation, the outer members of the group visibly accelerating before a turn.  It felt like a deliberate performance and, as they banked and changed direction, the sun caught their wings transforming them momentarily into mobile shards of silver.  Suddenly it was all over and without warning they landed on the beach to my right, disappearing from view as they merged with the mud.  Some passing birders told me they were mostly dunlin with a few sanderling.

After lunch I pressed on past the inner bay to the fist-shaped end of the sand spit, Warren Point, that nearly reaches the east bank of the Exe at Exmouth, but doesn’t quite make it.  This part of the peninsula is fringed by sloping sandy beaches and marram grass-coated dunes but the central area is quite different.  Here the land is covered with rough grass and vast mats of the tiny succulent, white stonecrop, a mass of white flowers six weeks ago but now just fleshy green growth.  The dry sandy ground also supports unruly clumps of brambles and many shafts of evening primrose topped with yellow flowers.  Large blue-green dragonflies swooped backwards and forwards in search of prey.

I have to admit that my visit to this part of Warren Point was not entirely unprompted.  Before I left, I had read about a very rare flower appearing here and, as I passed the information centre, I asked for guidance as to where they might be found.  I followed the directions and on a small rise surrounded by rough brambles I found them, several clumps of brilliant white flowers above thick strap-like leaves.  These are sea daffodils, found all around the Mediterranean often on sandy beaches but very rare in this country.  There are only three sites where these plants flower in the UK and Dawlish Warren is one.

In groups, the flowers look very spiky and disorganised but closer examination reveals the true beauty of the blooms.   Each flower has a very large white corona, trumpet-like with a deeply serrated edge, containing six prominent yellow pollen-loaded stamens around a long white style.  Behind the corona are six narrow sepals arranged symmetrically like a white star.   As I stood examining the flowers a light breeze wafted their sweet fragrance up to me.  I was so entranced that I failed to notice a rabbit hole and nearly fell over; it’s not called Dawlish Warren for nothing.

Sea daffodils clearly do resemble the flowers that are such potent symbols of spring in this country, but it is the late summer flowering of the sea daffodil that is so disconcerting.  They are also plants of very hot climates.  The Dawlish Warren specimens failed to flower last year and there has been some speculation that with this year’s long, hot, dry summer the plants felt more at home.

 

 

Evening primrose at Dawlish Warren
evening primrose

 

Meadowsweet and purple loosestrife at Dawlish Warren
meadowsweet and purple loosestrife among the long thick rushy grass

 

Water mint at Dawlish Warren
water mint with common carder bee

 

Solitary bee on fleabane at Dawlish Warren
fleabane with solitary bee (possibly silvery leaf-cutter bee)

 

Marsh helleborine at Dawlish Warren
marsh helleborine

 

Autumn lady's tresses at Dawlish Warren
autumn lady’s tresses

 

Glasswort growing in the inner bay at Dawlish Warren
glasswort (marsh samphire)

 

Sea daffodil with pollinator at Dawlish Warren
sea daffodil with pollinator

 

Solitary bee on sea rocket at Dawlish Warren
solitary bee on sea rocket

 

Hedgehogs, hyssop and strewing meadowsweet – looking back at the Garden in August

 

Beech nuts
beech nuts

 

August failed to deliver the holiday heat we expected and the unseasonable cool made us more conscious of the approach of autumn. Looking around, there was palpable change, particularly in the look of the trees. Some showed tantalising hints of autumn tints but, for many trees, the season changed their appearance in a different way. The fresh, bright green leaves that had signalled the headlong rush of spring growth now lacked lustre. Also, from our kitchen window I could see a lime tree that seemed to have been painted with impressionist-daubs of pale yellow-green giving the tree a lighter look. A closer examination revealed that the tree was covered with seeds and pale ribbon-like bracts; these will eventually fall together and the bracts will act as sails to aid seed dispersal. Another tree, a beech, exhibited a mass of fuzzy brown nuts, as if afflicted by a plague of small hedgehogs. Soon, however, the leaves will fall, the seeds will have their chance and the trees will await another spring.

Lime bracts and seeds
lime seeds and bracts

 

Leechwell herb garden
the herb garden

Down in the Leechwell Garden, there was still plenty of interest, especially in the herb garden. Several clumps of hyssop were in full flower and their colour, one sky-blue, the other pretty in pink, caught my eye. In the sunshine these new faces also delighted the bees.

Hyssop and bumblebee
hyssop and bumblebee

 

 

Echinacea
echinacea

 

Globe thistle
globe thistle and bumblebee

Bright pink echinacea and steel-blue globe thistle continued to flower valiantly providing welcome food for insects. I love the symmetry of these two flowers, a tribute to nature’s hidden plans. A tall mullein with a few residual yellow flowers overbalanced under its own weight like a drunk at the bar.

 

Artichoke
artichoke

Nearby, I found the massive flower heads of an artichoke topped with their punkish purple fuzz. The oversize blooms look like monster Scottish thistles and indeed artichokes are members of the thistle family cultivated for their edible buds. There is something primeval about the flower heads; fortunately the plants cannot move, otherwise we might have a prototype triffid. The blooms are also bee-favourites and I saw a red-tailed bumblebee seemingly drunk on the nectar.

 

water mint
water mint

The water flowing through the Garden from the Leechwell is very popular with visitors but it also attracts its own floral signature. Water mint, noticeable at this time of year for its many mauve flowers, dips its feet in the water and grows here prolifically. Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica tells the story of William Sole who, in 1798, wrote about the different kinds of mint and their particular smells. Sole likened the smell of water mint to “a ropy chimney in a wet summer where wood fires have been kept in winter”. This is too much for my nose and all I could detect was a strong minty smell.

 

meadowsweet
meadowsweet

The fragrant, frothy flowers and dark green foliage of the damp-loving meadowsweet were also in evidence growing near the stream. John Clare wrote about this plant in his poem, “Summer”:

The meadowsweet taunts high its showy wreath
And sweet the quaking grasses hide beneath

In the 16th century, meadowsweet was a popular strewing plant; its leaves were spread on floors to provide a crude carpet and a pleasant odour. The foliage of the plant emits a sharp aromatic scent and Gerard, in his herbal, extols the virtues of strewing meadowsweet: “the smell thereof makes the heart merrie, delighteth the senses”; it is said that meadowsweet was the favourite strewing plant of Elizabeth I. In contrast to the odour associated with the foliage, the creamy-white flowers have a different scent which, to me, is sickly sweet.

Meadowsweet has long been used in folk medicine to provide relief against mild pain. We now know that the plant contains chemicals similar to those in willow bark, another natural analgesic. These naturally occurring molecules were used to develop aspirin and the name of this widely consumed drug was derived from the old botanical name of meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria.

I wrote last month about the departure of the swifts. It turns out that this was slightly inaccurate as on the evening of August 10 two more appeared over the Garden; I suppose these swifts were on their way to the coast as we didn’t see them again. They were then replaced for a few days by a group of house martins. These are not as acrobatic or as quick as the swifts but it was good to see them swooping and twittering to one another as they harvested the insects.

The featured image at the top of this post shows a pollen-loaded honeybee on mullein.

This is the ninth of my diary entries for the Leechwell Garden;  to see the others please put “Leechwell” in the search box.