Plant of the Week: Blue Fleabane

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Entry number #5 in our Plant of the Week series follows the discovery of a local rarity, Blue Fleabane, at three sites in Newcastle this week.

Blue Fleabane, Erigeron acris

Blue Fleabane (Erigeron acris) is a small but beautiful member of the Daisy family, Asteraceae. An annual or biennial species, it flowers from July until September and is widely associated with coastal habitats where it favours well-drained dune habitats. A lover of calcareous conditions, it can also be encountered in dry grassland, on verges and occasionally, as an urban weed.

Befitting a love of well-draining, often quite desolate conditions, I have encountered this species at three sites locally of late. At the first of these, multiple plants were found growing in long-abandoned planters in my local industrial estate, notably in close proximity to Fern-grass (Catapodium rigidum) and other colonisers typical of such habitats. My second encounter came at Walker Riverside where several plants were found growing in pavement cracks by the Tyne. Finally, two more clumps of fleabane were spotted at Newburn Industrial Estate this morning.

Blue Fleabane is a scarce species in the North East, more numerous in County Durham (VC66) than in more Northerly vice-counties. Here, it is found frequently along the coast but also inland where it inhabits quarries and other dry habitats. In South Northumberland (VC67), it can be seen at several sites near Newcastle with an outlying population at Druridge Bay. It is rarer still in North Northumberland (VC68) where it can be seen at select coastal sites, including Lindisfarne.

What does it look like?

Blue Fleabane is similar in appearance to other small-flowered fleabanes in sporting small, inconspicuous flowers borne in panicles. The individual flowers appear flat-topped with ray florets only slightly longer than the disk florets. These lilac outer rays emerge from a yellow centre and from a distance, making the flower appear somewhat blue in colour. It is this feature which gives it the name, Blue Fleabane.

The general impression of this plant is one of a very short (less than 60cm) and densely hairy plant. The square stems are hairy, as are the phyllaries located behind the flowerhead – a useful feature in separating it from other plants in this family. Similarly, the clasping stem leaves are also hairy on both sides. The margins of these leaves are often untoothed or only slightly toothed, further separating this plant from other fleabanes.

Blue Fleabane is said to relieve tooth-ache and arthritic pains, though the truth of this remains to be determined…

Similar species

Canadian Fleabane (Erigeron canadensis) is a common non-native plant across much of the UK, including in the North East. This species tends to be far larger (but not always) and usually sports much more numerous flowers than Blue Fleabane. These are usually smaller too and lack attractive blue colouration.