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10 Apr 2020

Blooming gorgeous: thrift

A close-up of purple thrift flowers growing in a grassy field. Clusters of little flowers form a ball at the top of a long thin stalk.
Thrift, or sea pink, is an iconic seaside plant.
Thrift, also known as sea pink, is probably the most iconic flower of the seaside. It grows on sand dunes, on shingle, on the margins of salt marshes and on cliff tops, and is found throughout Europe.

Thrift (Armeria maritima) is one of our maritime plants that’s very well adapted to living in a salt-laden environment. The name thrift comes from the fact that it can grow in really harsh places, in shallow and nutrient-poor soils, with very little fresh water available. Its narrow, waxy leaves cluster closely together in a clump to conserve water.

It’s a short tufted perennial, growing in clumps with compact flowers forming round pink balls. These flowers appear on top of leafless stalks that can reach up to 30cm high, growing from clumps of linear leaves – the impression is of a green cushion of leaves with pink pom-poms on green stalks. 

Thrift was also used in some traditional medicinal remedies. The roots were sliced, boiled in milk and used to treat tuberculosis in Orkney several centuries ago. The dried flower was considered to have antibiotic properties and was used in the treatment of obesity, some nervous disorders and urinary infections.

A view of a hillside covered in pinky-purple flowers, looking down towards a blue loch and with the sea just glimpsed in the distance. On the other side of the loch, the hillside is covered in yellow gorse.
In good thrift years, the headland at St Abb’s Head is covered in a pink carpet.

The first flowers come out in April at St Abb’s Head, but thrift is best admired in May and June when it can form stunning pink carpets in good years. In Gaelic, thrift is known as tonn a’ chladaich, meaning beach wave – you’ll see why as the pink flowers blow like a Mexican wave in breezy coastal sites.

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