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Seashore false bindweed (Calystegia soldanella). Photo by Fabio Ippolito
In the almost uninterrupted stretch of lidos that look out onto some of the most beautiful beaches in Italy, here and there a nucleus of green or straw-yellow springs into sight, sometimes on the slopes going down to the sand, sometimes atop the highest part of the sandy dunes. It is impossible to recognise in these relicts the dune habitat of which Cosimo De Giorgi spoke in his description of the province of Lecce; dunes of up to 10 meters or more, that remind us more of the dunes in the Doñana Park in Spain than those clinging on to life on the coast of Porto Cesareo which are the boast of these beaches.
However, hidden here and there amidst disrespectful and invasive summer holiday homes, made vulgar by exotic species or those indicating strong anthropical disturbance, some of the most interesting vegetation that exists in our natural environments manages to survive, and has merited, from the water’s edge to behind the dunes, the highest level of safeguarding in the European Union “Habitat” directive.
The shore, on the external strip, the part in direct contact with the sea, takes the name of an “afitoic” zone, since it is free of vegetation because of extreme ecological conditions, determined by the variations that follow on from each other with great rapidity. In this strip we get the vegetable detritus carried by the waves, often composed of the remains of Neptune grass (Posidonia oceanica), that protects the beach from erosion and are unfairly treated as “waste”. In the first strip, considered “lines of marine deposit”, a flora develops consisting of short-cycle species: they are plants which germinate in autumn or at the end of winter and they have a vegetative period which sometimes lasts just 1-2 months. The most common species is the European searocket (Cakile maritima), of succulent aspect, saltwort (Salsola kali), and beach euphorbia (Euphorbia peplis); at the end of the vegetative period only a few dry stumps are left, and they get borne away by the wind, and the seeds, which will germinate the following year.
In the process of formation of the first stages of the dunes (embryo dunes) a perennial couch grass comes in; called Agropyrum junceum, it’s adapted to the life on the sand, and propagates rapidly on horizontal rhizomes. A further development process starts when another perennial, sand-loving grass appears; marram grass (Ammophila littoralis), which has robust stems, up to a meter and a half tall, erect leaves in the form of a dense clump at least a meter in height, and that constitutes a barrier to the sand brought by the wind, which gets deposited in the stems. In these sand-loving grasses we find the marine medical herb coastal medick (Medicago marina), together with the seashore false bindweed (Calystegia soldanella), sea spurge (Euphorbia paralias), the sea holly (Eryngium maritimum), the yellow hornpoppy (Glaucium flavum), the prickly parsnip (Echinophora spinosa), the sea daffodil (Pancratium maritimum), the Lotus commutatus, stocks (Matthiola spp.) and others.
The vegetation in the dunes reaches a maximum of complexity when the surface is occupied by woody species; it is composed of large-fruited junipers (Juniperus oxycedrus macrocarpa) often of large dimensions, and of accompanying species which are often also woody, like the mastic (Pistacia lentiscus), Phillyrea latifolia and cistus.