While the Norfolk coast may lack the dramatic scenery of western Britain, it still hosts a broad range of coastal habitat types. The saltmarshes of northwest Norfolk, which are nationally important, give way to calcareous dunes, brackish marshes and shingle banks as you move east away from the Wash. From Weybourne east to Mundesley, sea cliffs, less robust than those of western Britain, dominate the coast and to the south of these are the acidic dune systems of Winterton and the like. Finally, around Breydon Water, we see saltmarsh again.
These different coastal habitats, together with their underlying geology, influence the plant communities that they support. Anyone who has visited the shingle ridge at Cley or Salthouse, will have encountered some of the plant species able to tolerate the difficult conditions associated with shingle. Horned poppy, sea kale and sea campion all eek out a living on these mobile shingles. The equally mobile dune systems further west along the coast support a dune flora that includes autumn gentian and several species of orchid, all favouring these alkaline sands, derived from the shells of sea creatures. In contrast, the dune flora of Winterton differs because the sands here are more acidic, hence the presence of heather and cross-leaved heath to form extensive areas of dune heath.
It is Norfolk’s 2,800 hectares of saltmarsh that many readers will know best. In reality, the saltmarsh is not a single entity but a series of plant communities whose composition differs according to the underlying geology, degree of tidal inundation and history of grazing management. The north Norfolk saltmarshes, for example, which sit on sandier substrates than those of the Wash, show a progression of plant communities as you move inshore from their lowest point.
While these coastal communities may lack the range of colour seen in a traditional wildflower meadow, they do hold a more subtle charm. In late summer, for example, the purple tinge of common sea lavender can be seen on many of our coastal marshes, lifting the green tones and emphasising that there is botanical richness even here on the margins of Norfolk. If you want to find out more about Norfolk’s coastal plants then I’d recommend Simon Harrap’s ‘Flowers of the Norfolk Coast’.