Heathland in late summer is renowned for its lovely displays of purple heather, and Blackheath now in mid July is starting to look really spectactular. Since early June there have been bright magenta bell heather flowers appearing in greater and greater quantities, and now the more widespread common heather is coming into full flower too, to provide a more subdued purple-mauve backdrop.
After the drought of 2022 that is a very welcome sight, as the common heather was badly affected. There are still some areas where it seems to have died completely - hopefully these patches will be recolonised by seed from the many plants that survived.
Bell heather (Erica cinerea) - bright magenta urn-shaped flowers appearing earlier than common heather
Common heather or Ling (Calluna vulgaris) - pink-purple flowers in closely packed rows
Dodder(Cuscuta epithymum) parasitising common heather
Dodder close up.
Its thread-like pink stems twine round heather plants and produce clusters of pretty pink flowers, but no leaves
The protuberances on this dodder stem are 'haustoria'
These structures penetrate the host plant and absorb nutrients from it
As if the heather hasn't had enough to contend with lately, this year we have found quite a few plants smothered with dodder. This is a parasite, unable to make its own food and reliant on stealing it from its host instead. Bell heather doesn't appear to be affected, but on some common heather you may spot clumps of lighter pink flowers attached by a tangle of pink threads - these are the leafless twining stems of the dodder, pink instead of green because of its lack of chlorophyll.
Dodder is known to be related to bindweed and morning glory, with about 200 different species worldwide although only 4 of them are native to Northern Europe. All are parasitic on various hosts, and some are serious pests of food crops. Its seeds sprout on the surface of the soil and very quickly the seedling has to identify its host plant by sensing the chemicals it gives off. If it doesn't reach its host within 5-10 days of germination, the dodder seedling will die.
If you want to see this rather fascinating plant for yourself, there is a patch of it not far from the Littleford Lane car park.
Look out for this distinctive stump about 100m east of the Littleford Lane car park, go through the gap ahead and the dodder is on the left.
Wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca) flowering in May
Barren strawberry (Potentilla sterilis) flowering in March
Back in May when the wild strawberry plants were in flower, the only way to tell them from barren strawberries was by the leaves. The leaf of a barren strawberry is a duller green, with fewer teeth, and the terminal tooth is shorter than those either side, giving the leaf a more rounded outline. Now laden with delicious fruits, sweet and tangy, and bright red, it's easy to spot a true wild strawberry. There are lots growing on the steep banks of the lane leading down to the railway line and Albury, and by the sides of the tracks on the main heath too.
Wild strawberry in fruit in July
Ragwort (Jacobaea vulgaris) on Blackheath, a valuable source of pollen and nectar
It's very sad to see ragwort plants regularly uprooted by no doubt well-meaning people hoping to eliminate it from the countryside to protect their horses from harm. Proper management of ragwort in a horse field is sensible, but killing it elsewhere is quite unnecessary and a very bad thing to do!
With insect populations in real danger now, they need all the help they can get from us: ragwort not only provides abundant pollen and nectar for our beleagured pollinators, but at least 77 insect species have also been recorded eating ragwort leaves or living in the stems and flowers. About 30 of those rely solely on ragwort, including the well-known and endangered cinnabar moth.