Hunting for Sea Holly


Someone told me that sea holly had been seen on the spit at Dawlish Warren. It is a beautiful, prickly plant which has become increasingly rare.  I think that its strong, spiky lines would suit my style of drawing and I was keen to see it. So this morning I set off down the west side of the Exe estuary, following the the railway line on the edge of the water, past the pretty harbour at Starcross, small flat fronted cottages, and a lateral moraine of ugly brick houses crammed into once fertile pasture.


Dawlish is an unpretentious seaside holiday town at the mouth of the Exe.  A spit of silt, and sand formed 7000 years ago projects East into the estuary and this has been turned into a nature reserve. Over the last two and half centuries it has been reduced from a width of 250 yards to 50 yards. It is probable that despite the efforts to preserve it the spit will be washed away by rising seas later this century.

ImageThere was bright flinty sunshine and an icy wind. It was -2 degrees when we left the house and the sea holly sensibly no where to be seen, but on top of the dune there was marram grass. I remember it whipping my legs as I raced down to the beach as a child. It’s useful stuff because it can survive with little water, anchoring the sand until other species can establish themselves. So I settled down to draw it and, although I did not find sea holly, I found shells dropped by the sea birds, bleached by salt and sun.Image

I found spiney cockles, also known as red noses, razor shells, small scallops, called queenies,  slipper limpets, and a large mussel, called the painter’s mussel, because it is handy for holding paint.  I have a plan to sketch and paint them all. Their colours are so delicate. It is as if they have been rinsed in washes of pale blues, greys, violets and pinks and browns and dried in chalk dust.Image



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4 thoughts on “Hunting for Sea Holly

  1. I think a stalwart plant I’ve established in Inchivala garden might be related to sea holly. It’s called Echinops (Reitro) and has steel-blue thistle-like flowers. The holly-ish long leaves look as though they have been painted the upper-side and left unpainted on the under-side. It is an architectural plant forming huge clumps. The blue fades as summer goes on. Resilient enough to survive -15 degrees one end of the spectrum and scorching drought the other

    M xxx

  2. Apparently it is Eryngium that’s related to sea holly. I’ve got that as well. But I prefer the leaves of Echinops, jagged like holly. And the bigger, plainer thistle heads of Echinops. It OUGHT to be related!

    M xxx

    • That’s the one, and like so many other things it is under threat now. When I was a child it covered all the dunes around the Hebrides and especially the outer Hebrides. I thought it would be a good way to start painting flora again but still keep within the marine subject that I feel drawn to, and a little like the artichokes that I loved painting in France. I like the idea of it up in the Cantal with you ……

  3. I can almost smell the salt off the shells in that last picture. And blue in nature (the sky excepted) always seems extraordinary. Not purply-mauvish blue so much but this type, this watery blue.

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