Acting Director, Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Ecological Restoration
Late July is perfect for getting out and exploring our salt marshes – after the greenheads disappear in late July a tromp or paddle through the marsh can yield many rewards – great birding, fishing, and general relaxation. For the curious naturalist, late summer is the ideal time for learning to identify marsh plants. It is actually pretty simple.
Salt marshes are one of the most biologically rich ecosystems on the planet and there are a handful of field guides to have on your bookshelf or kicking around your backseat like Ralph Tiner’s A Field Guide to Coastal Wetland Plants of the Northeastern United States.
Ok here we go with my own, much abridged field guide:
1: Sea Pickle or Glasswort, Salicornia Europaea or Virginica
This plant likes to colonize bare patches on the marsh surface – it’s a succulent meaning its leaves are fleshy and full of water. Look closely at the marsh surface it’s only a few inches in size. It’s bright green in the summer and turns vibrant red in the fall. Take a bite! The plant is edible. Don’t eat too much in quantity, I’ve been told glasswort has laxative properties.
2: Sea Lavender, Limonium Nashii
One of the most beautiful plants found on the marsh – the lavender color flowers are easy to recognize and it’s blooming right about now, usually it stands up taller (up to two feet) than the surrounding grasses.
3. Smooth Cordgrass, Spartina Alterniflora
This plant is adapted to high salt levels and therefore is found near the edges of ditches, salt ponds and by mudflats. Be careful, it’s sharp on your bare feet because of its pointed leaves, which are broad and long.
4. Salt Hay Grass, Spartina Patens
The grass salt marsh hayers love to cut, bale and sell for mulch – found in the higher elevations on the marsh. It looks like a more typical grass, with narrow leaves about 1 foot in length. The grass is readily identifiable as it often “cowlicks” in dense mats.
5. Seaside Goldenrod, Solidago Sempervirens
The gold flower says it all. This plant is typically found on the edges of salt marshes blooming later in the summer until October.
6. Common Reed, Phragmites Australis - Our Division and conservation partners are working hard to eradicate this invasive plant from our salt marshes. In some marshes it has completely taken over, creating a vast sea of reeds. This plant is easy to identify along roadsides. It’s tall (almost 20 feet), has a big brownish seed head (that turns purple in the fall) and a narrow straight stalk.
One of the best ways to knock back this non-native plant is to restore unimpeded tidal flow to the marsh – installing bigger culverts, removing historic fill and eliminating storm water discharges to the salt marsh have been successfully used to keep this invasive at bay.