The impoverished, dry sandy or wet peaty soils of the Common support an extensive range of wild flowers and plants that in turn provide food and shelter for many species of amazing animals. Spreading your visits across the seasons give you an excellent chance of spotting a wide variety of plants. After all how could you resist the sight of drifts of purple Heather, the burst of golden Gorse flowers and then the russet hues of dying bracken in the Autumn. Birch with its light, airy foliage and peeling bark is widespread whilst Hillditch Coppice, on the eastern side of the Common, is bordered by Beech, Small- leaved Lime and Alder trees. Try finding wildflowers with evocative names such as Lady’s Bedstraw, Devil’s- bit Scabious and Harebell across the Common. Then look closer, for the tiny green mosses and lichens bearing names such as Juniper Haircap and Devil’s Matchstick. Grasses may seem uninteresting by comparison but look again at the delicate, shaking flower heads of Wavy Hair- grass growing in well drained ground in open sunny spots. Sedges and rushes on the other hand prefer more shaded and wetter areas in which to grow. So step into this incredible place, relax and enjoy its beauty and splendour.
Bell Heather (Erica cinerea)
Bell heather is one of the three species of heather found on the Common, the others being Ling and Cross-leaved Heath. The plant is a dwarf, evergreen shrub with dark, bronzy green leaves in whorls of three. The flowers, which bloom from July to September, are small, bright, magenta purple bells, held in compact clusters. It is found on coastal and lowland heaths, moors and open woodland, usually on rather dry, acid soils.
Common Heather or Ling (Calluna vulgaris)
This is the dominant plant of British heathlands, carpeting the ground over extensive areas. It is a lovely sight with its pale purple to pinkish lilac flowers blooming from July to September. The flowers are held on slender racemes above mounds of dark, woody and extremely tough foliage.
Cross-leaved Heath (Erica tetralix)
Cross-leaved Heath is another dwarf shrub, like Ling and Bell Heather, but the foliage is paler and greyer, with the leaves in whorls of four. The flowers are a pale pink and are held at the top of stems, in compact clusters. The flowering period is from June to October and this plant is found on the wetter areas, although it can also be found on drier heaths and moors.
Broom (Cytisus scoparius)
Broom is one of two yellow shrubs on the Common and with its slightly hairy stems, fragrant yellow flowers and no spines, it brightens the surroundings even on a dull day. It likes dry sunny areas, generally at lower altitudes and is in flower from April to June. The bark of this shrub was traditionally used for tanning and rope- making, both local industries in the last century.
Common Gorse (Ulex europaeus)
Gorse is the other of the two main flowering shrubs you will see on the Common, but this is one you don’t want to get too close to, as it has sharp thorns all over it. Many insects use it for nectar, and if you stand beside a bush on a sunny, spring day it will ‘hum’ with bees. There is a folk saying that “when gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season” as it will flower for most of the year, although April and May is the peak time.
Bird’s-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)
With sprawling mats of yellow to orangey yellow flowers in clusters of 2 – 7, and seeds similar to pea pods, Bird’s- Foot Trefoil brightens heathland, dry grassland and road verges from June to September. It is also the food plant of the Common Blue butterfly.
Common Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris)
A common sight from June right into November, Toadflax is related to our garden Snapdragons or Antirrhinums and is found widely over Europe, Northern Asia, China and North America. It is an important plant for insects, especially bees which make good use of its extended flowering period.
Devil’s Bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis)
This plant is related to the Teasel, and is also excellent as a provider of nectar for insects, and as pollinator plant. It has lilac to violet blue flowers and the leaves at its base often have blotches of purple. The flowering period is from July through to October.
Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)
This delicate creeping perennial has few basal leaves and the bell shaped flowers hang from long slender stems which move with the breeze. It is found on dry grassland, in open woods and sandy soils over most of Europe, flowering from June to October. Folk lore has it that witches collected the juice from harebells to turn themselves into Hares!
Heath Bedstraw (Galium saxatile)
Heath Bedstraw forms a low growing mat from which the flowers ascend. The leaves are grouped in whorls of 6 – 8 and have tiny bristles which give away the plant’s relationship to Cleavers or ‘sticky weed’. This plant produces an abundance of small white flowers from June to August. It is known as an indicator of unimproved dry acid grassland.
Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum)
This pretty little plant, with its foamy flowers has a lovely honey scent and in past times was used in mattresses to deter fleas, hence the name. It likes open grassland, road verges and sand dunes, and flowers from June to September
Marsh Cinquefoil (Potentilla palustris)
This attractive creeping perennial has maroon or purplish flowers, which are star shaped, with the larger sepals set behind the smaller petals, giving a ten pointed star. It likes to grow in wet areas and flowers between May and July. Marsh Cinquefoil provides a good nectar source for insects in early summer.
Red Bartsia (Odontites vernus)
Red Bartsia is a member of the Broomrape family, and has the family habit of taking nourishment from the roots of grasses, making it partially parasitic. It is a good pollinator plant, used by many insects and grows on dry grassland, field margins and disturbed waste ground. If you feel the stems of this pretty annual, you will find them slightly square, rather similar to Figwort. It flowers from July to October.
Sheep’s Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)
The red haze over the grass on the lower terrace of the Common in summer is caused by Sheep’s Sorrel, a low growing plant of dry meadows, grassy heaths and commons, on acid sandy soil. It is a relative of the Dock and, while it may not be welcome in the garden, it looks lovely here, flowering from May to August.
Weld (Reseda luteola)
This tall biennial with its yellow to green spikes has been used for thousands of years as a dye, producing a bright yellow. This was mixed with woad (Isatis tinctoria, a blue dye) to make greens, such as Lincoln Green. It will grow in moist areas but prefers dry, sandy soils, which also gives the plant a richer yellow when dried for dyeing.
White Stonecrop (Sedum album)
This Stonecrop is a small, succulent herb, which can grow on thin, dry soils where other plants would not survive. Its white, starry flowers, sometimes tinged with pink, can be seen on rocky ledges, walls, road verges and dry stony areas where the mat of prostrate stems can flourish without competition. The flowering period is from June to August.
Wood Sage (Teucrium scorodonia)
Wood Sage has the familiar, slightly hairy leaves of our culinary herb, but if you rub the leaf it has very little scent. Not much good for cooking then, but of great value to insects for pollen, and for birds, who relish the seeds in autumn. Again a plant of dry soils, open meadows, woods and dunes, Wood Sage flowers from July to September.