Thrift, Armeria maritima

Thrift, Armeria maritima, at sunset on Brean Down, Somerset. Island of Steep Holm in the distance. © Karen Netto (Andrews)

Latin name: Armeria maritima

Vernacular Name: Thrift

Other Common Name: Sea Pink (including Scotland and Ireland); Sea Gilliflower, Sea Grass.

Somerset Names: Cushion Pink, Cushions, Lady’s Cushion, Midsummer Fairmaid and Pincushion

County/CountryLocal Names
CheshireLady’s Cushion
CornwallBrittons, Sea Daisy, Tab-Mawn
CumbriaMarsh Daisy, Scawfell Pink
DevonCliff Rose, Cushions, Pincushion, Pink, Rock Rose, Sea Daisy, Sea Turf
DorsetLady’s Cushion
HampshireLady’s Pincushion, Profolium
OrkneyArby
SussexSea Daisy
WiltshireCushion Pink
Table 1: List of Local UK Common Names

Plant Family: Plumbaginaceae Order: Caryophyllales

Armeria maritima, Thrift, in its coastal, clifftop habitat © Karen Netto (Andrews)

QUICK FACTS

  • Coastal, salt-tolerant, native perennial that flowers from April to late summer
  • Leaves form dense mat or cushion-like rosettes
  • Dense, pompon-like, pink-white inflorescences on unbranched, leafless, erect stems
  • Individual flowers have 5 petals with darker veins and creamy, yellow pollen
  • Evergreen leaves are narrow, almost needle-like with one vein
  • Collar-like, papery sheath cups around the flower
  • Plant grows from tough, woody rootstock up to 40 cm tall when in flower

HABITAT

Common on the coast, cliffs and clifftop grassland. Open areas of compacted sand and shingle. It can also be found on drier, well-vegetated parts of salt marshes.

Rocky places inland, uplands, mountain-top moss-heath, lead mine spoil and river shingle contaminated with heavy metals.

Inland spread along salted roads and as a garden escape.

All above gallery habitat photos © Karen Netto (Andrews). From top left to bottom right: Armeria maritima on clifftop on the Lizard, Cornwall; Armeria maritima with Trifolium occidentale (Western Clover), Anthyllis vulneraria (Kidney Vetch) and Plantago coronopus (Buck’s-horn Plantain); Armeria maritima in grassy environment; Armeria maritima on rocky cliffside in Cornwall; spent Armeria maritima flowers in late August 2019 on rocks at Brean Down, Somerset.

UK DISTRIBUTION

BSBI states distribution has seen little change since the 1962 Atlas. It remains to be seen how much change the next Atlas will show.

Link to distribution map: BSBI Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora

Link to distribution map: NBN Atlas

SOMERSET DISTRIBUTION

VC5: Roe referred to Armeria maritima in Minehead in 1981 and yet the Somerset Rare Plants Group were surprised to find it there in December 2014. The newsletter reported that the 2 specimens were self-sown from an introduced plant.

VC6: The first inland Armeria maritima was recorded in June 2009 on the central reservation of the Wellsway in Bath. There were 13 clumps in flower.

THREATS:

None stated, although sea level rise and extreme weather due to climate change may affect habitats and surrounding vegetation. Some habitats may be completely lost under the sea or marooned as islands in the Bristol Channel like Steep Holm and Flat Holm.

Steep Holm can only be reached via small boat trips from Weston during high tides. The Bristol Channel has the second largest tidal range in the world. Due to the nature of the tides, visitors are obliged to spend 10-12 hours on the island before the return trip. Roe commented in 1981 that Armeria maritima was formerly common near the sea, but now local and often very sparse where it occurs. He also mentioned that it was very rare on Steep Holm and probably eradicated at Portbury by the construction of the Royal Portbury Dock.

Inaccessibility makes active land and grazing management difficult. Scrub can take over. Thrift cannot compete with larger plants. The plant needs to preserve a sufficiently large and varied population. Any colony needs to have two types of plant as it has a mechanism to prevent self-pollination. If all plants have the same pollen and stigma structure, pollination and seed production will not take place. The isolated population would die out.

(NB.: Some research suggests that self-incompatibility has broken down at some sites in Northern Britain and in metal-contaminated soils. Baker concluded in 1966 that cross pollination is the general rule).

OPPORTUNITIES:

Noted ability to bind substrate with potential use against coastal erosion. It thrives in rocky, dry, windy, saline conditions and may tolerate future climate emergency conditions better than other surrounding species. Its ability to create a dense mat also creates a platform and protection for other plants.

Armeria maritima and related subspecies have attracted the attention of researchers for their apparent ability to handle soils with high metal content, such as copper, zinc, cadmium and lead. Research has shown that the plants retain the metal immobilised in their roots. They avoid transporting heavy metals upwards into the rest of the plant. Higher levels of toxic heavy metals are excreted via modified stomata or using a dying leaf mechanism. Such abilities show a potential for cultivation in contaminated soil.

It is obviously preferable to avoid soil contamination altogether and growing conditions at mine sites will never be ideal for optimum growth. Polish research reveals that there is no automatic resistance to metals. Plants begin to build a resistance over time that other species simply do not. Even resistant plants vary in their resistance to different metals.

Armeria maritima is popular as a garden flower for rock gardens and other dry environments. It tolerates poor soil and drought conditions. The RHS recommends it to gardeners for pollinators, ground cover, drought-resistant flower borders and beds, garden edging, rock gardens, wildflower meadows in coastal cottage and informal wildlife gardens. Plantlife sells Armeria maritima in its online shop.

Conservation Status:

Least Concern status for the main subspecies which is found on most UK coasts. This does not appear to take into account local habitat risks.

France: Least Concern. Found on English Channel and North Atlantic coasts. Protected status in Calais and Normandy regions.

North and West European species to Greenland. Link to Kew Science Global Distribution Map

Biodiversity Support

Bees and butterflies/moths. Researchers have identified the following species:

  • Buff-tailed Bumblebee, Bombus terrestris
  • White-tailed Bumblebee, Bombus lucorum
  • Red-tailed Bumblebee, Bombus lapidarius
  • Honey Bee, Apis mellifera
  • Black-headed Leafcutter Bee, Megachile circumcincta
  • Marsh Tiger Hoverfly, Helophilus hybridus
  • Blue Blowfly, Calliphora erythrocephala
  • Flies, Sarcophaga sp.
  • Thrips, Thysanoptera (found on saltmarsh plants where no bees. Able to survive inundation).

Bees’ selective behaviour can restrict the gene flow between nearby populations in different habitats.

Armeria maritima, Thrift, showing narrow leaves and underside of flowers. © Karen Netto (Andrews).

Further Details

Plant Naming

Binomial: Armeria maritima (Mill.) Willd.

Genus: Armeria is somewhat confusingly the Latin word for a Pink, i.e. Dianthus.

Epithet: maritima relates to the sea which makes sense.

Thrift: It is thought that the plant got its vernacular name from the tight formation of its leaves. These enable it to conserve freshwater in the windy and salty conditions of its coastal habitat.

Other Language Common Names

Cornish: bryton and tab-mawn

Gaelic: tonn a chladaich (meaning ‘beach wave’)

Welsh: clustog fair (Mary’s Pillow)

French: jonc marin

Norwegian: strandnellik

Rare subspecies

Armeria maritima subsp. elongata (Hoffm.) Bonnier – Tall Thrift: this subspecies is nationally rare and has a UK Biodiversity Action Plan as a priority species. Collins mentions 2 locations in Lincolnshire. The BSBI Atlas attributes the losses to agricultural changes.

Armeria maritima subsp. maritima – Thrift: this is the most common species found in Great Britain, although identification guides do not generally go as far as subspecies.

Armeria arenaria, Jersey Thrift, is a separate Thrift species found in Jersey and other Channel Islands. It is more robust and taller than Armeria maritima. Its habitat is stable coastal sand dunes.

Postage Stamps

Well-known botanical artist, Lizzie Harper, recently illustrated Thrift for the Jersey Post. In 2003, Thrift also appeared on a minimum postage stamp for the Jersey Post.

Ireland had an Armeria maritima stamp for 20c in around 2008 as part of a wild flower series.

Coins

In a somewhat cheeky allusion, Thrift featured on the back of the George VI, old threepenny bit coin (1937- 1952). These often stayed in circulation until the new decimal currency came in 1971.

Welkinridge / Public domain

Cultural References

Thrift is the county flower of Bute, Isles of Scilly and Pembrokeshire.

Armeria maritima featured prominently in the D-Day 75th Anniversary Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. The garden has now been transferred to its permanent home in Normandy, France.

Finally, to end our investigation of a much-loved coastal plant, the Poet Laureate John Betjeman (1906-1984) described Thrift in the following coastal poem:

A Bay In Anglesey by John Betjeman

The sleepy sound of a tea-time tide
Slaps at the rocks the sun has dried,

Too lazy, almost, to sink and lift
Round low peninsulas pink with thrift.

The water, enlarging shells and sand,
Grows greener emerald out from land

And brown over shadowy shelves below
The waving forests of seaweed show.

Here at my feet in the short cliff grass
Are shells, dried bladderwrack, broken glass,

Pale blue squills and yellow rock roses.
The next low ridge that we climb discloses

One more field for the sheep to graze
While, scarcely seen on this hottest of days,

Far to the eastward, over there,
Snowdon rises in pearl-grey air.

Multiple lark-song, whispering bents,
The thymy, turfy and salty scents

And filling in, brimming in, sparkling and free
The sweet susurration of incoming sea.

References and Further Reading

Antosiewicz, Danuta Maria (1992): Adaptation of plants to an environment polluted with heavy metals. Acta Societatus Botanicorum Poloniae via Researchgate. June 1992. Last accessed 19 July 2020

Bothe, H. et al. (): Specific Metallophytes and Their Potential Role in Phytoremediation. 5.3. Soil and Heavy Metals. p.90. Eds: Sherameti, Irena & Varma, Ajit.

Brewin L. E. et al. (2003): Mechanisms of copper tolerance by Armeria maritima in Dolfrwyong Bog, north Wales–initial studies. Environ Geochem Health. 2003;25(1):147-156.

Bumblebee Conservation Trust (2020): Bumblebee ID Guide. Last accessed 4 August 2020.

Cheptou, P-O (2012): Clarifying Baker’s Law. Annals of Botany. Volume 109, Issue 3, February 2012, pp. 633–641.

Crouch, Helena J. & Jennifer M. (2010): Somerset Rare Plants Group 2010 Newsletter. Issue No. 11. Ed. Caroline Giddens. Last accessed 18 July 2020.

eFlore (2020): Armeria maritima Willd. Telebotanica. Last accessed 17 July 2020.

Eisikowitch, Dan & Woodell, Stanley R. J. (1975): Some Aspects of Pollination Ecology of Armeria maritima (Mill.) Willd. in Britain. New Phytologist (1975) Vol. 74, pp. 307-322. Last accessed 4 August 2020.

Gerard, John (1597): Of Thrift, or Our Lady’s Cushion. The Herball or General Historie of Plantes – Part 3, Chapter 187. Last accessed 17 July 2020.

Grigson, Geoffrey (1996): The Englishman’s Flora. Helicon. Oxford.

Harrap, Simon (2013): Harrap’s Wild Flowers. Bloomsbury. London.

Köhl, Karin I. (1997): Do Armeria maritima (Mill.) Willd. ecotypes from metalliferous soils and non-metalliferous soils differ in growth response under Zn stress? A comparison by a new artificial soil method. Journal of Experimental Botany, Vol. 48, No. 316, pp. 1959-1967, November 1997. Last accessed 19 July 2020.

Leach, Simon (2015): Mid-winter in Minehead (VC5) Somerset Rare Plants Group 2014 Newsletter Issue No. 15. pp. 15-16. Ed. Liz McDonnell. Last accessed 18 July 2020.

NatureGate (2020): Thrift, Armeria maritima. Luontoportti.com. Last accessed 18 July 2020.

NBN Atlas (2017): Megachile circumcincta, Black-headed Leafcutter Bee. Last accessed 4 August 2020.

Plantlife (2020): Thrift. Last accessed 18 July 2020.

O’Reilly, Pat & Parker, Sue (2007): Wonderful Wildflowers of Wales. First Nature Guide. Volume 2: Seashores and Coastal Cliffs.

RHS (2020): Armeria maritima, Thrift. RHS Gardening. Last accessed 18 July 2020.

Richards, A. J. (1989): The population genetics of Armeria maritima (Mill.) Willd. on the River South Tyne, UK. New Phytologist. June 1989. Vol. 112, Issue 2. pp. 281-293.

Roe, R. G. B. (1981). The Flora of Somerset. Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society. Taunton.

Stace, Clive (2010): New Flora of the British Isles. Third Edition. Cambridge.

Streeter, David et al (2016): Collins Wild Flower Guide. 2nd Edition. HarperCollins. London.

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