Zennor parish. has an amazing variety of habitats considering how small an area it is. As the crow flies, it is just over 4 miles west to east and up to 2 miles wide, but the coastline, convoluted with coves, zawns and headlands, is much longer. From cliffs to moorland in two miles, with almost everything in between – maritime heath, pasture, arable land, Cornish hedges, streams, scrubland, mire, woodland, moorland, gardens, granite outcrops….here is a brief guide to the riches to be found.
The cliffs face the fury of Atlantic storms when salt spray drenches the rock faces and blows inland to affect plants even a mile or so from the sea. Look at the colours on the cliffs- the lowest band is brownish-grey from the encrustation of barnacles that are submerged at high tide. Above this, in the spray zone are definite bands of colour, black nearest the sea, then orange, and above that, a band of grey-green. These wonderful colours are lichens and the extent of these bands on sea cliffs gives an indication of how exposed they are to salt spray.
The black band (Lichina) looks just like smooth rock, but the orange (Xanthoria) and green (Ramalina) have a more plant-like appearance. There are hundreds of lichen species to be found growing on hard surfaces such as rocks, trees, bushes, fence posts, concrete, to name a few. All are slow –growing, and most only thrive where there is clean air. A lichen is not a single organism; it is a stable symbiotic association between a fungus and either algae and/or cyanobacteria which use sunlight to provide the food for themselves and the fungus, while the fungus provides the structure.
The cliffs and cliff-tops are part of the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) ‘Aire Point to Carrick Dhu’, and support nationally scarce plants and animals, rare habitats and important geological sites.
In SPRING, that is, from March to mid- May, the landscape is gradually transformed into an exuberance of flowers, starting with the Blackthorn blossom on the bare purple spiny bushes of coast and hedgerow, yellow Celandines and especially the lush bright green -flowered Alexanders along the bases of the roadside hedges. These hedges soon disappear beneath an abundance of white Cow-parsley, Red Campion and Bluebells. As the Blackthorn comes into leaf and its blossoms fade, the Hawthorns take their turn with beautiful creamy- white blossom completely covering some trees, especially in the more sheltered valleys. On the coast, pink Thrift, white Sea Campion and the more special little blue Spring Squill come into bloom, with carpets of bluebells where Bracken will later emerge to shelter the bulbs from the summer sun. The rare Royal Fern unfurls with tall copper-green fronds along stream banks and the tiny deep blue flowers of Milkwort can be found in the coastal grassland and on the moors. There are Primroses on shady banks and a flush of Dandelions in the fields.
SUMMER comes quickly. Hedges fill with Foxgloves and the yellows of Cats’ Ear and Gorse. Streams are lined with Golden Saxifrage and orchids appear along the coast path and on the moors. Most are Heath Spotted Orchids but Southern Marsh and Early Purple Orchids are also to be found. Trees come into full leaf, and Elder blossom takes over from the Hawthorn in adorning the hedgerows.
The special plant community, Western Maritime Heath, is particularly good on the headlands. The main grass is Red Fescue, and this forms a mosaic with Bell Heather and Ling with small heathland species such as the four-petalled yellow Tormentil and the tiny white Heath Bedstraw. Maritime species are sometimes very abundant, in particular Thrift, Sea Campion and Sea Carrot. On Gurnard’s Head, look also for the low- growing yellow Dyers’ Greenweed and the purple flowered rayed form of Hardheads. Sea Plantain and Bucks-horn Plantain are flowering now as is the Sea Aster and yellow Kidney Vetch. A really strange plant grows in red tendrils that form thick mats over the Gorse. This is Dodder which is a parasitic annual that gets all its water and nutrients from the sap of the Gorse.
Another interesting habitat is the cliff flush – these are the muddy wet bits on the coast path and they support many unusual and rare plants such as Purple Loosestrife, Wavy St. John’s-wort, Bog Pimpernel and Pale Butterwort.
Up on the moors, various wet areas start to look more interesting as the Cotton Grass comes into flower, and stands of Bog Asphodel glow yellow amongst the dark Purple Moor Grass. In some places, on closer inspection you can find Sundew, Fen Violet and maybe the very rare Cornish Moneywort. Away from the wetter parts, there are extensive stands of the three heathers, Bell-heather, Cross-leaved Heath and Ling, these mostly forming an impenetrable carpet with the low- growing Western Gorse which shows its golden yellow flowers at the very end of the summer. Bracken fronds spring up and unfurl to cover large areas of the coastal strip in a uniform green cloak. Gorse flowers scent the air on sunny days and the stands of Meadowsweet and Hemp Agrimony are another fragrant delight in wetter places, food for bees and butterflies.
The fields are mostly grazed by cattle or cut for silage but there are a few small meadows left which glow with buttercups and Sorrel as the grass starts to flower. The arable fields, if not sprayed, often have a good variety of arable weeds, a rare sight elsewhere these days. Look for the white-flowered Corn Spurrey and diminutive Field Pansy, and the Annual Nettle which is much smaller and more delicate than Common Nettle.
AUTUMN is often heralded by a gale from the west. Wind-blown salt turns the Bracken brown almost overnight and shreds leaves from trees well before they start to turn colour. It is the season for fungi, some of which are very conspicuous. The tall Shaggy Parasol is to be found in coastal grasslands and unimproved meadows. A few such fields also have Horse Mushrooms and Field Mushrooms. These seem to require cattle on the fields and a few colonies may still persist for a year or so if the field is re-seeded. On very short, nutrient-poor, undisturbed grassland there may be bright red waxcaps (Hygrocybe species). Other waxcap species are orange, purple or yellow, but the commonest is a dirty white. Waxcap grasslands are of conservation concern and as a specific habitat such grasslands are the subject of several local Biodiversity Action Plans. This is also the season of fruit – blackberries, sloes, elderberries, haws, rose-hips- in abundance and there for our enjoyment and as important food for birds and small mammals. Badgers and snails feast on blackberries as well. WINTER is when plants rest. The colours in the landscape are rich and subtle, changing in intensity with passing rainstorms and different angles of the low winter sunlight. Some plants are evergreen, such as the heathers and Ivy which has flowered late and saves the ripening of its berries until mid-winter. Up on the moors, the grass turns gold, then gradually bleaches to a pale straw colour until the new growth starts again in April. As this is west Cornwall, the mild winters mean that you can usually find a few flowers, some quite unseasonal, but Dog Violets are often blooming in January and there is always the chance of finding a Gorse flower.
Article by Dr Liz Thompson