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Wild wanders with Fiona Hall: Pillows of pink

In the latest of our 'Wild Wanders' guide series, our Biodiversity Consultant Fiona Hall talks about her very favourite wildflower - thrift (Armeria maritima).

I am a little bit in love with thrift. Where I live in Angus, we are blessed to see it around the base of the local cliffs, and along the clifftop path.

The month of May is the perfect time to see it in bloom - but it usually flowers from April to July.

Thrift is a perennial wildflower that can be found in coastal areas all over Britain. It’s particularly suited to cliffs, islands and salt marshes.

As an alpine plant, it can also be found at the top of some of Britain’s highest mountains, including Ben Nevis.

If you’re lucky, you might also find thrift in your local garden centre! It works beautifully as a rockery or pot plant, and it’s been a garden favourite since the sixteenth century. It can be planted in well-drained, sandy garden soil, and it a great source of nectar for insects.

Each thrift flower blooms on a single stem and looks a bit like a bigger, pinker, puffier version of a clover flower. When you look closely, however, you’ll see that each bloom is made up of lots and lots of small flowers. Get right up close to see the beautiful detail.

Thrift blooms can be pink, pale purple or whiteish, and their colours fade as they get older. The flowers feel delicate and papery, while the leaves are flat and grass-like.

Both flowers and leaves emerge from a central ‘pillow’ or clump of plant.

How does it survive in such extreme environments?

Thrift has adapted to survive in the sort of harsh environments where extreme temperatures, salt in the air and dry, sandy soil stop most other plants growing.

It is a hermaphrodite species, which means the plants are both male and female. Something as simple as an insect walking over a thrift plant will enable it to pollinate itself - or the one next to it - very easily.

The central clumps of the plant can live for a very long time, but grow very slowly. They have tough leaves and stems to cope with strong winds, and it takes them a long time to dry out.

Thrift also has a high tolerance to soils (for example those on rock faces or cliffs) that are rich in copper.

The plant doesn’t allow the copper to travel all the way up its stem to its newest shoots. Instead, it stops the copper at leaf level, and then excretes it back into the ground as the leaves decay and fall off. How clever is that?

How can we use thrift?

In years gone by, dried thrift flowers were used as an antibiotic, to treat urinary infections, to help tackle obesity and to treat some nervous disorders.

Also known as…

Thrift has many other names. I love ‘sea pink’, but folk also call it ‘rock rose’, ‘cliff rose’, ‘cliff clover’, ‘marsh daisy’, ‘cushion rose', ‘sea gilliflower’ and ‘sea grass’.

In Gaelic, thrift is known as ‘tonna chladaich’, meaning ‘beach wave’. And in Welsh, it’s called ‘clustog Fair’ - ‘Mary’s pillow’.

In floriography - the language of flowers - thrift stands for sympathy.

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