Spartina alterniflora – a tricky but very fun collection

It is now mid-September, and signs of Fall are finally becoming evident. More crisp days, it is feasible to drink tea in the morning and start out the day in a flannel.  Tree lines on our drives are turning gold and red and looking more like classic New England. And not having still, hot summer air makes fieldwork even more enjoyable.

This past week, we embarked on a two-day collection near Providence, RI, and it was quite different than any other we had done. Spartina alterniflora, or smooth¬†cordgrass, has to be collected generally before the first full moon in September, so that the seeds don’t get washed out with the high tide. (Here’s more info about it from the NEWFS GoBotany website: https://gobotany.newenglandwild.org/species/spartina/alterniflora/ ). So with clippers in hand and full-size garbage bags tied to our waists, we set off for the marshes of Rhode Island.

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Our mentor Michael proudly wielding his scythe in a stand of Spartina alterniflora.

We met with a woman from the Save the Bay program in Rhode Island, who is working on this project alongside us, as well as a few of her volunteers. The S. alterniflora collection is just one of the many restoration projects they are a part of. The seeds from last year’s collection were immediately grown and planted at Sachuest National Wildlife Refuge in Middletown, RI, to restore a degraded salt marsh there. We were able to see this project a few months ago – several plots composed of about 20,000 plugs, on their way to becoming a salt marsh again. It was so cool to see what our work looks like when it comes full circle! The S. alterniflora seeds we collected again this year will go to that same project. The main reason these seeds have been used right away (besides restoring a degraded marsh as soon as possible) is for a very practical reason – they smell HORRIBLE. This is because seeds are mostly composed of lipids, so the fats start to decay as soon as they are detached from the plant. If the seeds become too moldy, the viability will drop off drastically, and the collection would be in vain. Additionally, these plants came from a salt marsh, so naturally the salty leaves that got into our five full garbage bags smelled like it. By the end of the day, we definitely did too.

One of our five smelly full-size garbage bags of S. alterniflora seed heads.

One of our five smelly full-size garbage bags of Spartina alterniflora seed heads.

The first day we were in some very dense patches of S. alterniflora, mostly bushwhacking through it, and it was mostly at eye-level or above our heads. That day felt more like trying to mow a lawn with a pair of scissors, although we had a beautiful view. These sites also had sidewalks or trails going through them, and we were able to show many dog-walkers, photographers, and people hunting for treasures with metal detectors what we were doing. It’s always a good day when we can raise awareness about the native plants to people who live right by those populations!

The beautiful view from our lunch break at our first collection site.

The beautiful view from our lunch break at our first collection site. The grassy-looking plants down on the beach is the Spartina alterniflora!

The site on the second day was a less dense population, and was best reached by sloshing through three feet of ocean it grows next to. Especially on a warmer day, overtopping hot rubber boots is so refreshing. The coastline here was also being degraded by invasive fiddler crabs, which created these sort of mudflat islands right before the S. alterniflora populations. If you’ve ever played “the floor is lava”, it was a very similar situation in trying to determine which patches of mud I could balance on to snag some more seeds, and which would just suck my leg down into three feet of mud – needless to say, I was having a grand old time, although I am definitely sad about the dieback of the saltmarsh.

Our final collection site, photo taken from a more stable portion of the marsh so that I didn't fall in while capturing this beautiful scenery!

Our final collection site. The S. alterniflora is the taller grass farther away – I didn’t get a closer picture for fear of falling in!

Krista Heilmann

Seeds of Success East Intern

New England Wild Flower Society

Framingham, MA

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