Last summer, in the heat of mid-July, I took the train down to the wee station of Plumpton which sits not more than two miles north of ‘…the famed, the brave South Downs’. I had fancied a downland wander and at this time of year I knew that the thin chalky turf of the hills would be smothered in wild flowers. The walk felt considerably longer than it had looked on the map, all of it was on roads and the heat from the sun was torture; hitting me square on my sweating forehead and then rebounding off from the tarmac to hit me again under the chin.
At length I made it to the foot of the slightly protruding hill that peered down at the scattered community of Plumpton, a farm track slung away to my right and up the side of the downs, mercifully lined with tall ashes and oaks that cast deep shade. After a laborious climb I finally reached a style beyond which hummed a sun-drenched meadow that lay at a near-vertical angle and commanded a splendid view northwards over the dark-green wield. It took me no more than three steps before I had to stop, kneel and examine the flowers at my feet; this turf was literally foaming with flowers of various colourful species and I spent the rest of the day happily identifying and enjoying these floral treasures.
The final count of wild flowers was at least forty species, all of which were found in the one meadow that covered not more than a few hundred meters square. Some of these had wonderful names; the tiny white Squinancywort is my favourite, the yellow-green spikes of Wild Mignonette also, as well as the compact tufts of Eyebright, the bright gold lances of Agrimony, the funny burgundy-coloured drooping patches of Red Bartsia and perhaps the plant that is bound to make you titter unless you’re a nun; the Nipplewort.
There were a few Common Spotted Orchids, most of them were a bit past it but some were still standing proud in their glossy white petals, dotted with intricate patterns of candy-floss pink. The ostentatious Ox-eye Daisies were in their hundreds and nearly every one had some sort of insect splayed contentedly upon the yellow florets, including several mating beetles and the very fine looking chequer-boarded Marbled White butterfly. When it comes to scents the chalk turf is a fabulous mixture of warm, herby, summery smells produced by several species of plant; wild Marjoram (the original oregano), Thyme, Dropwort and the speckled golden bunches of Ladies Bedstraw.
There were a lot of bluey-purple flowers in the meadow that contrasted nicely with the many white and yellow flowers that dominate this grassland. Field Scabious is large, disc-like and a pale purple, Knapweed is a densely packed dark purple flower that is a favourite of bumblebees, Round-headed Rampion is also purple and is so common in this particular habitat that it is also known as ‘the pride of Sussex’. Self-heal is not confined to chalk turf but is a pleasant low-growing purple flower that is quite content to be a part of the background, I found three species of Thistle, each sporting a purple pollen-rich inflorescence. Harebell is a gorgeous plant with hair-thin stalks that somehow support the papery fairy-hat shaped flower that dangles from the end of each plant, in Scotland this is known as the bluebell.
Some of the less obvious flowers include Fairy-flax, a delightfully named yellow-centered white star-shaped flower and Salad Burnet – a ground-hugging plant with wine-red globular flower heads. Field Madder is easy to miss too as it looks rather like Squinancywort, Pignut is an almost ethereal plant and is quite unlike its more robust umbellifer cousins. Upright Hedge-parsley, Perforated St. Johns Wort, Cat’s Ear, Ragwort (complete with the striped caterpillars of the Cinnabar Moth), Silverweed, Black Medick and Yarrow were also scattered amongst the multitude of flowers and grasses that were thriving on this steep hill slope. I sat under a Hawthorn around mid-day, avoiding the thistles and rabbit droppings, to eat my lunch; I gazed out over the green land below that undulated far into the distance, the strong blue of the sky holding a few nonchalant clouds.
Some of the most impressive and pretty flowers from that trip are chalk specialists so are difficult to see elsewhere, but many were also well-known farmland plants; Bladder Campion is a special favourite of mine, its flowers resemble a newly hatched egg with the petals unfurling from within. I found Yellow-wort there too; a tall, strong plant with strange leaves and flowers shaped like a child’s drawing of a sun, Yellow-rattle is an interesting species with flowers like ship’s lanterns, poppies were present also, splashing the field with drops of deep red.
There are many places along the South Downs or on any chalk hillside which closely resemble the place I found just above Plumpton, they are wonderful to visit in high summer and offer the budding botanist or entomologist a great opportunity to practice their art.