Spartina: The Splendor of Our Marsh Grass

By Anneliza Itkor, Outside Hilton Head

Cordgrass serves as a keystone element in the Lowcountry’s saltmarsh environment.

March heralds the arrival of spring here on Hilton Head Island. While the rest of the country may look to budding trees to indicate winter’s conclusion, here in the Lowcountry, our marsh grass paints the canvas of seasonal change.

A coppery brown during the winter, this perennial grass sprouts vivid green new growth as spring approaches. Spartina alternaflora — or, as the locals refer to it, cordgrass — is one of the keystone elements of our saltmarsh environment. It’s worthwhile to take a look at some of the more fascinating properties of spartina, as well as the unique role it plays in the preservation of this ecosystem.

Interlocking Spartina

Let’s start by looking at how spartina serves the saltmarsh during different stages of growth. While cordgrass roots don’t necessarily grow very deep, a single plant’s root system will spread out 12 to 15 feet and interlock with the plants around it. These root mats help stabilize the marsh, or pluff mud, protecting against erosion.

Spartina stalks also break up wave energy before it reaches land, lessening the impact of storms. This feature contributes to Hilton Head’s status as a barrier island.

These grasses, measuring 8 to 60 inches, also provide an important refuge for all kinds of wildlife. Wading birds,

Marsh Wren

marsh wrens, clapper rails, mink and otter are among the critters seeking refuge here from predators, inclement weather and the curious eyes of humans.

In the fall, cordgrass develops small white flowers along the upper stalk that develop into seed heads. As the leaves turn a golden brown, the seeds disperse. These seeds not only create new spartina plants, but are also an important food source for local and migratory birds.

In the winter, when the grass dies back, the spartina forms what we call wrack. This wrack is pushed into the current by rising tides and new growth, and quickly begins to decompose. Wrack releases nutrients back into the ecosystem and eventually sinks to the bottom, nourishing the pluff mud from which it grows. Each and every stage of life plays an essential role in the health of the saltmarsh.

And let’s not fail to mention one of this plant’s most unique features: spartina grass requires freshwater to nourish its root systems. One might wonder how it acquires freshwater when we only find it growing in saltwater marshes. The plant actually draws saltwater up into its core and then “sweats out” the salt through special glands located at the base of its leaves — in essence distilling its own freshwater.

With its excellent survival skills and ability to protect our wildlife and our coastline, spartina alternaflora demonstrates all the properties of a warrior. It’s definitely worth a trip out into our saltmarshes to have an up-close encounter with this amazing plant.

Outside Hilton Head offers guided tours via boat, kayak or paddleboard that can introduce you to all the keystone elements of the Lowcountry saltmarsh ecosystem. Just visit outsidehiltonhead.com to learn more about the variety of ways we can introduce you to the springtime wonder of the Lowcountry. To book an outing with Outside Hilton Head, call (843) 686-6996 or visit www.outsidehiltonhead.com.