By Kim DiPasquale
Halophytes are salt-resistant or salt-tolerant plants that thrive in soils or waters containing high salt concentrations. Much has been written about the halophytic plants that grow in the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, especially cordgrass and pickleweed, but many people aren’t aware of the fact that there are actually three species of pickleweed in our wetlands. The differences can be subtle but learning a few unique characteristics will make identification much easier, and help one appreciate the complexity of the coastal saltwater wetlands. To begin, recall that salt marsh zonation patterns are commonly observed and occur because of variations in elevation, available water, soil chemistry, and nutrient availability. Of our three pickleweed species, one is an annual and two are perennial. Starting at the lowest elevation and continuing to the high marsh, the species are as follows:
Bigelow’s Pickleweed, Salicornia biglovii, left, is a slender annual that grows straight up from the ground and is sparingly branched. It grows in the mud flats in the lower part of the marsh where it is inundated by high tides and exposed at low tides. It is often found intertwined with saltwort (Batis maritima). It grows 4-18 inches tall, is light green in color, and flowers from July to November.
Pacific Pickleweed, Salicornia pacifica, right, is a perennial shrub that has a semi-woody base, is multibranched, and can be upright or with a creeping growth habit. Branching is not as dense as Parish’s Pickleweed (described below). It grows throughout most of the elevational range of cordgrass in the low marsh zone all the way up to the high marsh zone that is covered only by the highest of tides. It is 8-28 inches tall, blue-green in color, and flowers from August to November. The stem tips turn a drab reddish green in the fall. Its tiny yellow-white flowers sprout near the tips of the stems.
Parish’s Pickleweed, Anthrocnemum subterminale, left, is a dense perennial shrub that grows at higher elevations and in drier soils than the other two species. It grows 3-12 inches tall and has narrower branches and a darker green color as compared to Salicornia pacifica. This species of pickleweed also has tiny flowers but they are instead spread around the middle of each stem. It flowers from April to September.
Photos by Kim DiPasquale. References: Allen and Roberts. (2013), Wildflowers of Orange County and the Santa Ana Mountains. Baye P. (2007) Selected Tidal Marsh Plant Species of the San Francisco Estuary.