Site 21: Salt Marsh

Ye marshes, how candid and simple and

nothing withholding and free,

Ye publish yourselves to the sky and offer

yourselves to the sea!

Sidney Lanier - The Marshes of Glynn


Between here and the houses to the north stretches the expanse of the salt marsh. Salt marshes are some of the most productive ecosystems in the world. The biomass of the collective plant species above ground is rivaled by a extensive, tangled root system in the muddy sediment below. Critical nutrients, such as phosphates and nitrates, are taken up by the roots so that the plant cells may build the molecules necessary to perform the functions that keep it alive - such as building complex sugars with the help of energy from the sun. 

The lowest parts of the marsh are covered by the tall saltmarsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora). Also prominent in slightly drier areas is a shorter relative called salt meadow cordgrass (Spartina patens). This second species does not tolerate being regularly flooded by tidal waters, so it grows in the mid-marsh. Other grass species grow here, competing with the cordgrass, such as saltmarsh rush (Juncus gerardii) and spike grass (Distichlis spicata). Common in rather wet areas are distinctive salt-tolerant succulants known by several names like glasswort and pickle weed (Salicornia sp.) or sea blite (Suaeda maritima).  Sea lavender (Limonium carolinianum) is sometimes found here, too, distinct with small purple flowers. Uplands of the wet areas, the highest portions of the marsh are lined with high tide bush (Iva frutescens), northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), beach rose (Rosa rugosa), and the tall, invasive common reed (Phragmites australis). Even some cedar trees dot the back of the landscape.

The complex flora of this place hints at how much fauna can be sustained by this amout of productivity. These areas provide rich nursery habitat for fishes and invertebrates. Once grown, the adults will leave the protection of the salt marsh to seek habitat elsewhere in the bay and even may head to the ocean. Migratory and native birds feed and nest in these areas. It is not uncommon to see white-tailed deer, coyotes, foxes, and other large vertebrates frequent these places looking for some food. 

The marsh also provides naturals services to every-day human activities. Marshes act as a buffer zone between the land and the bay. The peat sediment soaks up materials that runoff the impervious surfaces of roads and driveways, such as oils, fertilizers, and sediment, and could otherwise do damage to the marine ecosystems that are necessary for fisheries. Likewise, the elastisity of the marsh allows it to absorb the actions of waves during storms and prevent the coast from eroding away during storm surges associated with hurricanes.  

The many benefits of the marsh should not be undermined by coastal development. Rocky Hill is working to keep this particular section of marsh as pristine as possible, while also monitoring the species that live here and the water quality. Here, our students have amazing opportunities to work in a habitat that most others rarely get to see, touch, and study!

Land of Fires - Site 21