An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

October 25, 2008

A Little Wild Around The Edges

I live in a very urban and largely democratic neighborhood, but I am not speaking of our collective political persuasion, which by historic voting trends does tend to be Democratic. Despite the fact that John McCain lived in the neighborhood for a while as a child, and not without a valiant signage effort by my Republican neighbors - this area will likely vote for Obama in overwhelming numbers.

The democratic word that I am referring to is spelled with a lower case "d". We are one of the few residential neighborhoods in Norfolk where everyone has equal access to the waterfront. In most other areas these prime pieces of real estate are on private property, but our neighborhood is surrounded by a narrow strip of public green space that lets anyone enjoy the views. Most of public space is encompassed by a sea wall which protects the shore line from falling back into the river and limits flooding (sometimes). This seawall is a great benefit to the human residents of the area, but wildlife suffers. In the few remaining areas where there is no seawall, wild things grow. There is a diversity of plants that provide homes for marine and terrestrial animals, and it is not uncommon to see several species of heron, egrets and other water birds grazing in the shallows for a meal.

At this time of year one our most prolific, but often unnoticed natives is at its showiest. Baccharis halimifolia (called Saltbush here) has previously flowered and is now about to send forth its fruits which are the showy white parts. Much like dandelion seeds, Saltbush will be creating floating clouds around the water's edge in the next few weeks. This plant is well at home on the edge and can tolerate a great deal of salt flooding, and is one of the first species to reclaim disturbed wetlands. It is semi-evergreen, gets about 10' tall or more, and I like its craggy bark as well. This a a sure sign that fall is coming to Tidewater.

In the following pictures you can see some of the other species trying to live in this narrow tidal zone. Enlarging the first picture will give you a closer look at a "salt meadow". This was some sort of Golden Rod, but I do not know what species. The unusual little Pickleweed (Salicornia virginica) has no true leaves, just green fleshy stems that go red in the winter. It is a halophyte and several species of Salicornia are not only edible, but are being evaluated for use in biodiesel production. This could be an interesting possibility for former agricultural lands that have become salinated, or for areas with limited quantities of fresh water, but with abundant salt water.
I would guess that this little flower is an Aster relative, but what I found interesting was that there were many of them growing in an area that frequently gets flooded with salt water.Another one of our under apprecieated natives is Celtis occidentalis or Common Hackberry. The best feature of this tree is its ability to grow where other trees wither. It is tolerant of salt, wind, cold and hot weather, pollution and poor soil. I won't say it is "pretty", but the fall color is a fair yellow, however the bark is fantastic. There are close ups of this bark in one of my previous blog posts, for which I need to apologize for its weird bent (not sure what I was thinking).

The reed growing under the Hackberry is the scourge of the mid-Atlantic coast - Phragmites australis. This plant is rapidly colonizing wetland areas, choking out native species and turning diversity into monoculture. Like many scourges, this one is man-made. A common misconception is that this plant is an introduced non-native species. This plant is indeed native, but in the late 1800's, genetically superior Phragmites australis was introduced to North America. Disturbing wetland soils encourage this plant to grow, and unfortunately there is no easy way to eradicate it. Maybe we could return it to its traditional use and make thatched roofs with it - lots of thatched roofs.
When introduced plants take over, or when these wild areas at our fringes are not preserved, little guys like these Periwinkle Snails have no place to live, and crabs and fish that like to eat them go elsewhere or go hungry. What happens in wild places not only has an effect on the food chain, but on the quality of our lives as well.


  1. Those are beautiful clouds of flowers. I am glad you mention hackberries. I love their bumpy bark, though don't grow any in my yard, there are many around here.

  2. Hiya Les,

    What a wonderfully constructed post.

    It was with great sadness and not a little frustration that we realized that not all coast lines are free to all in your area.

    We spent a day trying to get near the shore South of Alexandria. Having virtually the entire shore available to us in the UK (apart from the bits the military grabs for training), it took a while to sink in that this is not the norm.

    Thank you for yet again another outing with such detail and insight.

  3. You are lucky to live so close to the water Les & be able to access it freely. Those wild areas are few & far between now.

  4. That was fun. Living on San Francisco Bay, I am acutely interested in bay ecologies.

    Your baccharis is lovely. I didn't know that genus existed outside of California. We have a west coast species Baccharis pilularis called Coyote Bush that grows everywhere. Not a lovely plant unless you're a bug.

    And salicornia is fascinating. There's a whole salicornia group on Flickr.

  5. Tina,
    I have come to appreciate Hackberry, but only lately. I never even noticed them until the last few years. It should be our national tree for the fact it will grow in all 50 states.

    I know that Britain has a very enlightened outlook on public access to property. The state of Virginia bases everything on tide lines and so none of our salt water beaches are private, but fresh water areas have a different criteria and are restricted. It is all so archaic.

    We are lucky. Everyone wants a view of the water around here, but that will double the price of a house. So it is nice that we can walk to the water, and when it floods we get even closer!

    Thanks for stopping by. I have heard of Coyote Bush, but know little about it. Our Baccharis is very nice now, but the rest of the year it is completely unremarkable, at least visually. Thanks for the Flickr tip.


  6. Hi, Les--I really admire your knowledge and concern about and appreciation for the native plants. Those plants have a beauty that is too often taken for granted--in lit, we call the technique of your photos "estrangement"--not a pretty word, but it describes the way your pictures make us see differently. Great work--

  7. Les,

    Thanks for the comments on Baccharis. I remember this shrub from my childhood in Mississippi. I asked my father about it but he didn't know its name. So I went for about 60 years wondering what this plant was. Only a couple of years ago did I finally identify it, I believe in one of Rick Darke's books. There is a large Baccharis in the Pond Garden at Chanticleer.

    I enjoy your reports on the plant life in your area.

  8. Cosmo,
    Thank you for your very kind comments. I have always admitted to being strange, now I can say I am "estranged". I am not a natives-only gardener, but I have always been fascinated by what comes up in the cracks of the pavement, and in the persistence of life in adverse situations. It gives me hope.

    Thank you for your comments. I usually try to go to a symposium sponsored by the local council of garden clubs in March of each year. I do not know what their budget is, but they always get the best speakers. In 07 they got Richard Darke to come. I was overwhelmed with his images of ordinary foliage. It made you see the familiar in a whole new light.


  9. Wonderful photos. I like the democracy of having equal access to waterfronts...


  10. Gail,
    Thanks for stopping by, and the equal access is one of the reasons we moved from one house in this neighborhood to another.


  11. Thank you so much. You have identified a plant for me that I see on our trips to Florida. Saltbush, I never knew what it was.

  12. Phillip,
    I am glad to be of assistance.


  13. I live by wetlands in the Panhandle of Fl. What I think is Saltbush (we call it tide water bush) took over the wetlands after hurricane Ivan. The water birds have flocked to our area. Unfortunately, the bushes have turned totally brown after a period of draught. Will it return to green? Can we do anything to encourage it to come back- cut the brown areas back? We have had a great deal of rain lately and I am looking forward to the wetlands greening up. I don't want any of the former invasive species of Tallow to return.