East Head

Field meeting reports

Meeting date: 1 September 2001

(Leader: Nick Sturt)

East Head is home to more than 20 species of vascular plant in the Sussex Rare Plant Register.  In his superb introduction the National Trust warden, Daniel Delaney described the pressures, both natural and human, to which this precious and fragile spit is subject, and how the present and future challenges are to be met. The party of (guess!) nineteen saw for themselves the recent erosion of the western edge of the dunes and the numbers of visitors who in their various ways enjoy the location. The immediate task, however, was to record the flora.

There was a promising start with Alan keying out Oenothera cambrica, an Evening Primrose largely overlooked since its discovery on the Head in the late 1970s. Then into the dune-slacks to be confronted with Hypochaeris glabra (Smooth Cat’s-ear) in quantity, its rather feeble flowers open in the bright sunshine. A number of years ago when there was a BSBI meeting here, Francis Rose had remarked on the development of the dune-slacks and prophesied the appearance of Epipactis palustris (Marsh Helleborine): the orchid has yet to arrive but much else has, for example two substantial stands of Calamagrostis epigeios (Wood Small-reed), Phragmites australis (Common Reed) and various sedges, notably Carex divisa (Divided Sedge) and C extensa (Long-bracted Sedge); smaller finds were Centaurium pulchellum (Lesser Centaury) all of 2cm tall and fruiting Trifolium fragiferum (Strawberry Clover). In the dunes themselves there was, in places, an abundance of Euphorbia paralias (Sea Spurge) and Calystegia soldanella (Sea Bindweed).

Well-known enthusiasts advised on lunch and then, suitably fortified, we embarked upon the saltmarsh and, led manfully by Alan, rose to the challenge of glassworts – identifying with the aid of Stace’s unconcise volume  Salicornia fragilis, S. dolichostachya, S. ramosissima and the single-flowered S. pusilla.

At the end of the spit, while sailors tended smouldering barbecues, the dunes yielded both Conyza canadensis (Canadian Fleabane) and its cousin C. sumatrensis, and also a little Leymus arenarius (Lyme Grass). Near the southwest corner, facing Hayling Island, a new shingle shelf had been built up by the sea and other rare plants presented themselves – Salsola kali (Prickly Saltwort), Cakile maritima (Sea Rocket) and a very little Atriplex laciniata (Frosted Orache). But the prize was Polygonum maritimum (Sea Knotgrass), the seeds of which must surely have been carried across the channel from Hayling. Some twenty plants were seen, most young ones but a few which could well have arrived last year (or even before) – one very woody one surrounded by seedlings. The leaves of this species are distinctively inrolled and it was instructive to compare some nearby specimens of P. oxyspermum (Ray’s Knotgrass) which also has darker, sharper nuts which protrude further from the corolla.

We wandered back along the shore past sunbathers and sand-castles to an oasis in the form of Judy’s beach hut where the owner generously plied us with squash and biscuits – a Summer image to cherish in these Winter days!