Anatomy of a salt marsh

Often spotted on the fringes of beaches and often disguised as an impassable puddle when the tide comes in, salt marshes may evade our attention more than we realize. The purpose of this blog post is to introduce you to some saltmarsh species that can help you identify a plot of land as a healthy salt marsh. Freshwater marshes occur too, and many species will grow in salty, brackish and freshwater marshes. The below pictures come from one particular saltmarsh in southeastern Connecticut at Bluff Point State Park.

Diversity is indicative of a healthy ecosystem and a greater number of species will often be present in a healthy saltmarsh. Grasses, rushes and sedges, which are all grass-like plants or graminoids, make up this basic level of diversity. Without these graminoids, like Spartina sp. and Juncus gerardii, the area would at best be considered a former salt marsh. From the graminoids, flowers, succulents and even some small shrubs may be added to the composition. Altogether, these species will form a patchwork of colors against the horizon, if you are lucky enough to see an expansive salt marsh.

Being able to recognize a species by its general outline in the distance is known as seeing the species’ “gestalt”. Many species you can identify simply by this color because salt marshes tend to have the same species; plants that are adapted to the site’s characteristic salinized and flooded conditions. Sometimes the colors are more apparent when a species is in bloom or when last year’s flowers dry up. Sometimes, the texture of the plant or the way it blows in the wind can be more telling.

The below pictures offer a quick example of this salt marsh’s species composition. Species will often grow in clumps or stripes along the water line or especially salty areas. Along the water’s edge, Spartina alterniflora (red oval) is most likely to be present, as shown below. This knowledge can help one avoid accidentally stepping too far into open water. It might be more advisable to walk along the areas containing plants that tend to grow in drier, more sturdy soil. For example, shrubs: Iva frutescens (pink oval) is one such shrub and redeems the Spartina alterniflora shown here. Limonium carolinianum or sea lavender (orange oval) has small, intricate flowers.

It also pays to know the edible plants. Salicornia depressa (yellow rectangle) offers a crunchy, salty bite that can be compared to a pickle.

Red Oval: Spartina alterniflora; Orange Circle: Limonium carolinianum; Yellow Rectangle: Salicornia depressa; Pink Circle: Iva frutescens

Patch of mostly Schoenoplectus americanus

P.S. As wonderful as salt marshes are, one should take caution when entering one because the vegetation may obscure large, sometimes human-sized, holes. Go in a group and tread carefully! Try to go at low tide.

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