There are few places in Europe where you can find so many different botanical habitats in such close proximity.
From the Salt marshes, mudflats and sand dunes of North Gower, through the woods, over the heaths, past the rivers and ponds to the fresh water marshes, dunes, coastal paths and rock pools of the South, the variety of plants and animals is amazing.
Coastal plants benefit from the mineral-rich droppings of sea birds – but need to be hardy to withstand the salty and wind-blown conditions. There are clearly defined zones which relate to their tolerance of the salt seawater. The seaweeds show a zoning of their own, but above the reach of the tide the “splash zone” is characterised by hardy lichens and also the ledge and crevice plants that can withstand a certain amount of salt spray. These are called “halophytes” .The Sea Spleenwort (Asplenium maritimum) is one such plant and is our only maritime fern. Sea Lavender, Sea Campion and Thrift or Sea Pink (Armeria maritima), with its characteristic tufts of pink flowers, all thrive on the nitrogen-rich bird droppings. The white Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum) and Golden Samphire (Inula crithmoides) also grow in the rocky crevices- the former was a popular vegetable in Shakespeare’s time and is still a special ingredient today with some chefs- with its spicy succulent leaves.
Because the sand dunes are susceptible to not only the forces of the sea, but trampling by human beings, - in some places (e.g. Porteynon ) areas have been fenced off to protect the regeneration of the Marram Grass (Ammophila arenaria). These “out of bounds” areas protect a wealth of wild flowers e.g. Sea Stock (smells beautiful on a warm Summer’s evening), Evening Primrose (Oenothera) how do they extract that precious oil?) Devil’s bit Scabious, Burnet Rose and Bloody Cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum). The leaves of Fennel are excellent for cooking with fish. (especially a freshly caught Mackerel!). Sea Beet (Beta maritima) grows on the strand line - the cooked young leaves taste better than Spinach, together with Sea Holly (Eryngium maritimum) and Scurvy Grass (Cochlearia officinalis)- the leaves of which are a rich source of Vitamin C and were at one time eaten by sailors as a protection against scurvy.
The dunes at Whiteford are a good area for the bright green Spurges, Sea Aster (Aster tripolium) and Couch grass. Before you reach the Burrows there is an unusual plantation of mixed conifers with the blue of Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare) growing nearby (–the word “Echium” comes from the Greek for Adder- the plant was once used to cure Adder bites. In Spring , the bright yellow flowers of the Marsh Marigold at the edges of the nearby streams create a striking contrast with the vivid blue of the Brooklime Speedwell . Oxwich Burrows are the best place to find Marsh Helleborine, Sea Bindweed and Wintergreen. You may even be lucky enough to find Twayblade or the rare Bee Orchid here too. Pyramidal Orchids can be found in May-June on most of the dunes. In Bishopston Valley last June I saw an impressive display of the Southern Marsh Orchids.
Some surprisingly large plants grow at the cliff sides and rough areas between dune and cliff. e.g.Mallow, Mullein and Valerian. Towards the top of the cliff, where often some grazing (by rabbits or sheep) has taken place, the plants become more typical of heath or scrubland. On the southern cliffs, in springtime, you will behold a blue carpet of Squill (Scilla verna.) and between the Gorse bushes (which are always in bloom!)-Centaury, Milkwort, Eyebright and Violets .
Many visitors may avoid the Northern part of Gower with its dull-looking stretches of oozy mud but, to the botanist, this is an exciting area. The saltpans formed, between the irregular clumps of vegetation where the tide flows in through creeks and channels, provide a distinctive habitat. The Sea Purslane( Halimione portulacoides) with its grey-green leaves is a characteristic perennial growing on the raised banks of the creeks where the deeper deposits of mud provide good root drainage. Glasswort (Salicornia) is one of the first settlers in the bare mud. Its smoothly curved fleshy stems trap more silt, offering the least resistance to the currents which try to uproot the seedlings and also those of Cordgrass (Spartina townsendii). Later in the summer, Sea Lavender (Limonium vulgaris) and Sea Aster, provide carpets of mauve.
One of the earliest flowers to respond to the spring warmth is the Lesser Celandine, which carpets woodlands and hedge banks with a slash of gold –when the sun shines. William Wordsworth wrote a poem about it! In April/May too the woods are carpeted with Wood Anemones (Anemone nemorosa) and later, Bluebells (Endymion or Hyacynthoides non-scriptus) (The real ones are becoming scarce- as a high percentage are now hybrids with the Spanish variety). The hedges and damp ditches are decorated with pale lilac swathes of Ladies Smock (Cardamine pratensis) also called Milkmaid or Cuckooflower.
Cowslips (Primula veris)-with their delicious scent-are sadly much rarer than fifty years ago mainly as a result of the ploughing of old pastures and the widespread use of agro-chemicals. Early farmers, its said, thought cowslips sprang spontaneously from cowpats. The old English name, cu-sloppe eventually became Cowslip. The flowers make an excellent wine! When Cowslips and Primroses grow together they often form hybrids called False Oxlips.
The meadows and hayfields produce some of the finest floral displays -especially those now endangered habitats where fields have not been ploughed for several years. In late May and early June such meadows are ablaze with the yellow of the Meadow Buttercup (Ranunculus acris). Children hold the flower under each other's chins to discover if they like butter! The sepals of both the Meadow and the Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus repens) have erect sepals, whereas the sepals of the Bulbous Buttercup (R.bulbosa) are bent back.
All buttercups contain an unpleasant chemical which is poisonous to cattle. Fortunately, because of the unpleasant taste, cattle refuse to eat them.
Another native of the fields is the Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) with its bright red flowers which only open in the sunshine, hence the name "Poor man's weatherglass". There is ararer, blue flowered variety, which can be found near Porteynon Point.These belong to the Primrose family.
It is impossible to name or describe the hundreds of beautiful plants to be found on Gower-I hope this gives a “taster” to encourage you to study the many species- but not to pick too many! You may find the botanical names differ from those printed.
Six special things to look out for: -
The rare Yellow Whitlow Grass not only grows on Pennard Castle (as the Floras tell you) but on the cliffs between Pennard and Rhossili.(March)
In May/June search for different species of orchids in the sand dune slacks at Oxwich and Whiteford.
In July, look for the insectivorous Sundew on Cefn Bryn or Rhossili Downs . They trap insects with the sticky red hairs on their leaves.
The yellow flowers of the Fringed water lily are quite rare but can be seen in Broad pool on Cefn Bryn in July/August. It belongs to the Bogbean.family .
Reynoldston Green is, in fact a Chamomile lawn. Look for the flowers (which are rare inland) before the sheep eat them! (June/August).
Visit Oxwich Marsh for an amazing display of Cowslips and Bluebells.