This tiny. purple-flowering plant is endemic to the UK and is one of the rarest species you might spot on a dune.
With small, bright purple flowers, the Dune Gentian (Gentianella amarella subsp. occidentalis) is one of the rarest sand dune plants you might find. Found at only a handful of locations in the UK (in South Wales and North Devon). One of the reasons it is so rare, is that careful conservation management of sand dunes is needed to create the right habitat for it. This gentian grows in short turf in dune slacks, favouring sites with an open vegetation structure and low nutrient soil.
In recent years the Dune Gentian has suffered a decline in its population due to poor management and is now considered an Endangered species. In the UK it is highly protected.
In the last few years, lots of studies have focussed on dune gentian and have shown that it is genetically different from European plants. It is now believed that the plants growing around the Severn Estuary have adapted to their local environment so much, that they are considered a new sub-species!
The gentian family is very tricky to identify, as there are several very similar-looking species found across our sites including the Early Gentian (Gentianella anglica), Field Gentian (Gentianella campestris), and Autumn Gentian (Gentianella amarella). The Dune Gentian is taller than some of the other species (up to 15cm when flowering) and differs in that the central flowering stalk (terminal pedicel) can make up to 70% of the overall plant height. It is a summer annual plant, so you can best spot it's flowers in late summer through to early winter (Aug-Nov).
Image: Tim Rich
Dune gentian is endemic to the UK – it can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Surveys undertaken between 2019 and 2020 showed that the world population was only around 2250 plants!
In areas of short vegetation in the dune slacks at Oxwich Dunes in South Wales, although Dune Gentian can be easily confused with its close-relative the Autumn Gentian which also grows here. Some populations are also found in Devon.
Careful sand dune habitat management is key to supporting populations of this rare plant. At each of the places where Dune Gentian is currently found, rabbit grazing has been vital for its survival. By grazing, rabbits help to create a close-cropped sward and maintain areas of open vegetation, which Dune Gentian needs. In places where denser or coarser vegetation has been established, then it is important that other grazing animals such as cows are used to help remove the dense sward.
Want to learn more about Dune Gentian?
Evans, L. and Rich, T., 2021. Current status of the rare British endemic Gentianella amarella subsp. occidentalis, Dune Gentian (Gentianaceae). British & Irish Botany, 3(2). DOI: https://doi.org/10.33928/bib.2021.03.136
Images: Tim Rich