British distribution: Formerly common around the British coast, now becoming more local, rare in Scotland and perhaps almost extinct on the Scottish east coast.
Eryngium maritimum is a typical perennial plant of coastal dunes: in open sand at the tops of shores, on the strandline, in foredunes and, as shown here, in more stabilised open sandy turf. It occurs also on shingle and sometimes on coastal wasteground. It is a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae, formerly Umbelliferae), but the flowers are aggregated into a dense, rounded inflorescence rather than the flat-topped umbels so typical of the family.
It shows a number of xeromorphic adaptations to survive water-loss, including its spiny leaves and bracts to deter grazing animals and its thick, waxy cuticle. The root system is able to grow down a metre or more into the sand. The cuticle probably also protects the plant from the erosive effects of blown sand.
Its spiny nature does, however, make it an unwelcome plant where it grows on popular beaches, often just where people want to sunbathe. It is vulnerable to trampling and, like other strandline species, is locally vulnerable to beach-cleaning machines. Consequently it is declining and showing local extinctions. There would appear, however, to be climatic factors also at work, since public pressure cannot be a major factor in its disappearance from east Scotland.
The genus Eryngium occurs through much of the world and includes a number of garden plants, often valued for the colour of their foliage as well as their flowers.
Photographs: Wigtownshire, Scotland, 1977, shown (upper photograph) with Sand Spurge (Euphorbia paralias) in one of the few Scottish sites for the latter plant, and with Common Restharrow (Ononis repens), the pink flowers visible in the photograph.