Sea Rocket takes off, from time to time

December 26th 2018

This well-framed photograph of Sea Rocket Cakile maritima was taken by Jorine van Delft of the Achmelvich Youth Hostel on 19th October 2018 on the adjacent beach (NC0524).  It was one of two clumps on the upper part of the beach.

Loose sand along the drift-line, where rotting seaweed provides extra nutrients, is sea rocket’s preferred habitat, although it occasionally occurs on shingle.  It is an annual member of the cress family, with a long, thin taproot, succulent leaves and a dense head of lilac flowers.  Its seeds float in seawater and are dispersed by the tides.

I suspect that they also remain viable when buried by drifting sand, germinating if and when they again reach the surface.  This may help to explain why local records are very sporadic; sorting them out has involved an interesting paper-chase (and its electronic equivalent).

Sea rocket was first noted locally in the 1950s, at Achmelvich, by the Sutherland botanist John Anthony (in his manuscript card index, which I have).  It was not again recorded there until 8th August 1998, by Pat and I.

Four years later, on 25th August 2002, Heather-Anne Campbell of  Nedd came across a single plant amongst cast-up wrack on the upper part of the beach at Clashnessie (NC0530); when we visited the site we found the remains of a second individual not far away.  It was not again reported from Clashnessie until 5th August 2016, when David and Avril Haines found two good clumps much further out on the beach, but again where seaweed had accumulated (see his photographs).  The contours of this beach are greatly changed from year to year by storm tides and it was certainly not visible this year.

In the meantime, I had noted it in quantity on 8th August 2014 on a walk with my brother along the upper edge of the beach at Clachtoll.  I must have had my GPS with me on that occasion, since there are three separate 8-figure grid references in the computerised records, situated in two adjacent 1km squares (NC0327 and 0427). It must surely have occurred there prior to 2014, although we have no other recent record from that area (but see below).  Incidentally, there appears to be no information to support the assertion that it has occurred on the beach at Stoer (NC0328), despite what it says on p.97 of the Flora of Assynt.

A search of the large BSBI national database, kindly undertaken by Andy Amphlett, provided much of the information set out above.  It also threw up an interesting ‘wild card’, a record dating from 18th June 1952 at the supposed grid reference NC040220.  This is the westernmost end of Soyea Island off Lochinver, which Pat and I visited on 25th September 1999, without finding sea rocket; we were also unaware of any previous plant records from the island.  After further detective work by Andy, it would seem that a typographical error occurred during inputting; the grid reference should read NC040270. This is at Clachtoll, where it, and other species (some appropriately grid-referenced), were found by two distinguished botanists, David McClintock and David McCosh, on that date in 1952.  The entry has been corrected; the lesson is not to believe everything you read on computer outputs.

Ian M. Evans

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