Pacific Pickleweed and California Cordgrass: Key Plants of the Saltmarsh
By Rachael Lloyd

Lining the watery edges of the saltmarsh stand two ubiquitous plant guardians, Pacific Pickleweed and California Cordgrass. Pickleweed sends up spires of bumpy strands from its roots under water. Cordgrass often mixes its smooth rigid blades into the stands of Pickleweed. Each species sometimes stands alone and sometimes clusters together. They are joined by the fact that they each thrive in a very narrow band of habitat just offshore in the shallow intertidal areas of a salt marsh. Both are known as halophytes, plants that can process seawater and survive where few others can. Though they occur together in a common plant zone known as the salt marsh ecosystem they each employ distinct biological processes to survive in this harsh environment.

Fall in the Pickleweed Patch

It is thought the common name Pickleweed was given
for two reasons, the plants’ salty taste (it is edible),
and the pudgy, bumpy texture of the succulent stem.
Photo by Rachael Lloyd.
I’m standing as all of us who love Bolsa Chica often do on our cherished footbridge viewing the change of seasons in a salt march. The early morning air tastes now more of winter’s cold bite than the cooling caresses of summer. Each year around September after the terns have flown south with the young they raised here in Bolsa Chica a pinkish red autumnal glow spreads across our vast Pickleweed meadows. Now crimson patches create a mosaic among what would otherwise be a palette of green stems providing us with our own version of “fall color”. Prior to the development of the fall color this remarkable native plant spent late summer opening miniscule white blossoms keen on the production of tiny seeds. Two hundred years ago if we were Native Americans we would gather those seeds to grind as food. Not that the Pickleweed would mind the loss of its seed. It prefers to reproduce by sending underground roots called runners through the salty mud and popping up new green shoots in shallow waters protected from wave action.

Each of these new shoots consists of scale like leaves laid along plump, fleshy stems featuring joints called nodes. As with any living organism the structure of Pickleweed is built up cell by cell. One defining feature of a plant is the presence of a large central vacuole inside individual cells. Vacuoles are essentially enclosed compartments which are filled with water. These vacuoles are like large storage tanks separated from other plant cells by a membrane. Different plants isolate a diversity of elements inside these cellular storage units depending on their unique biological functions. Pickleweed packs its vacuole with sodium ions, a key element in salt processed from the water in which it lives. High salt concentrations will kill cells and when sufficient cells die the whole plant will die as a result.

As fall arrives and the succulent stems of Pickleweed turn pink or red, Pickleweed will purge its water and its salt. Its flesh will shrivel, the stem ends will break off at the nodes, and the deceased tissue with its salt will be recycled into the marsh where the nutrients will be dissolved and reused. The tiny seeds will be released at the same time. And so once again the perennial Pickleweed will ready itself for a new season of growth.

California Cordgrass

Blades of female California Cordgrass showing the
array of stigmas along the edges waiting to receive pollen.
Photo by Rachael Lloyd.

Cordgrass is a tall reedy grass, usually higher than the other plants and the easiest plant to identify in the salt marsh. The rigid spires of California cordgrass (Spartina foliosa), which can reach four and one half feet in height, are nearly always submerged in water at the base. Its roots take in seawater and later the saltwater is pumped out through special pores in the leaves. The sun evaporates the water and the salt crystals left behind are sometimes visible on the grass blades. The rise and fall of the tides works with winter rains to clean away the salt crystals.

California cordgrass reproduces sexually and asexually with asexual reproduction being the most successful for this species. Asexual propagation occurs year-round as new blades are fabricated through an extensive root system buried under the salt marsh mud. In addition, California Cordgrass flowers from June through September. Male flowers produce a small quantity of pollen. The pollen is distributed by wind or water to meet up with the tiny stigmas lining the edges of female plant blades. The resulting seeds drop into seawater and much of it is lost. When cordgrass dies back at the end of the summer nutrients dissolved from dead leaves enrich marsh waters for the use of many microorganisms.

The coastal wetland habitats cordgrass depends on for survival have been largely filled in for urban use or transformed through dredging into marinas. So while its habitat areas have been severely reduced, California Cordgrass nearly always occurs in any remaining habitat. Its range extends along the California coast to Baja California, Mexico, and southeastern United States. These plants are an important habitat for year round saltmarsh resident the endangered Light-footed Ridgeway’s Rail, (Rallus obsoletus levipes), which lives its entire life and builds its nest within cordgrass forests. Cordgrass blades provide food for another avian saltmarsh visitor, the Canada goose, Branta canadensis.