Sea Oats (Uniola paniculata) – Some of the most familiar plants on the beach are sea oats. The tall grassy stems are topped with seedpods resembling oats, hence the common name. Sea oats, natural to the Carolinas, are a crucial component to dune systems. Their stems stop and collect wind-blown sand, thereby building up the dunes and their roots extend below the surface and help to stabilize the sand. If you take away the sea oats, the dunes would be wiped out quickly by waves and strong winds. Sea oats are salt resistant and are able to withstand the high summer temperatures by curling up their leaves to conserve moisture.
American Beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata) – Also crucial to the development of dunes, beach grass is an introduced species to this area (Cape Hatteras is the southern limit of its native range.) It grows on the primary dunes, in separate clumps of green grass, growing about 3 feet tall. The stems act much like the sea oat stems, trapping and collecting sand around its base, thereby building up the dune. This collection of sand at the base of the plant will trigger further plant growth, so the cycle of dune growth and plant growth will continue.
Seashore Elder (Iva imbricata) – This species can be identified by its woody stems and succulent leaves, typical of plants living in an arid environment. Several sprout up in one area, trapping large amounts of sand and forming a rounded “mound” of sand. Seashore elder is able to tolerate the high winds and salt spray, and is therefore often found in the primary dune area, along with sea oats and American beach grass.
Seaweed (spp.) – Seaweed, which are actually different types of algae, can be broken down into 3 recognizable groups – red, green and brown, also known as Rhodophyta, Chlorophyta and Phaeophyta, respectively. Seaweeds have no stems, roots, leaves or flowers. One of the most commonly found seaweeds on Bald Head Island is sea lettuce. Unmistakable with its bright green color and thin, waxy feel, sea lettuce is a great food source for animals and humans alike! Sargassum, brown seaweed, can be found along the high tide line, or wrack line, often in large clumps. Its branch-like, toothed stems can identify it and small round floats, called pneumatocysts. These pneumatocysts are filled with carbon dioxide and keep the sargassum clump near the surface, which is necessary for photosynthesis, a process by which the plant uses the sun’s energy to produce its own food. Sargassum weed provides a fantastic habitat for many fish and invertebrates, and several species have adapted to take on the same coloration as the sargassum, in an effort to better camouflage themselves.
Canopy trees (Live Oak, Laurel Oak, Red Cedar) must be salt tolerant; they protect the smaller trees of the understory from salt spray and wind damage; Live oaks tend to rot from the inside out, making it difficult to age them, as there are no distinct rings to count. Largest ones on BHI are estimated to be about 200-300 years old;
Understory trees include: Yaupon Holly (red berries, leaves are high in caffeine and drinking strong tea can make you vomit – scientific name is Ilex vomitoria), American Holly, Carolina Laurel Cherry (scratch the bark and smell- cherry or almond smell to it, indicates cyanide in the branches/leaves), Red Bay (crush leaf and smell), Wax Myrtle (crush the leaf – good smell), and American beautyberry (purple berries) all of these plants are major food source for wildlife – both mammals and birds;
Other trees of note: Sabal Palm (this is the northern most range for the Sabal Palm), Ironwood (also called musclewood for it’s “ripply” appearance, like muscles!), Loblolly Pine, Dogwood and Wild Olive;
Look on the limbs of the Live oaks for Resurrection Ferns (might be all brown and curled up if it doesn’t rain). Spanish Moss, a member of the bromeliad family, meaning it’s related to the pineapple;
Spleenwort is the other fern you are likely to see growing on the forest floor;
Red cedar and dogwoods were both harvested from the forest; red cedars to make pencils and dogwood to make spools for the textile industrusty.
Duckweed are tiny floating plants that inhabit freshwater ponds. They form floating mats that can cover a pond's surface.
Sweet Gale grows along the shores of some freshwater barrier ponds. When the twigs or leaves of the plant are bruised they give off a spicy odour.
The Broad-leafed Cattail is also called the common cattail. It can be identified by flat leaves that are up to 2.5 cm broad. It grows in freshwater ponds and marshes, wet areas in fields, ditches, along the edges of rivers and streams, and in estuaries away from or above the salt water. It cannot tolerate more than 1 per cent sodium chloride (salt) in the water.
The Narrow-leafed Cattail has leaves that are slightly rounded on the back and less than 1 cm broad. Unlike the Broad-leafed Cattail it can tolerate some salt, is more common along the coast, and is often found in brackish water at the upper ends of salt marshes, estuaries, and freshwater barrier ponds that maintain a certain percentage of salt.
Freshwater Cord-grass, unlike other cord-grasses, occurs in areas where fresh water is predominant. The spikes usually have a yellowish tinge.
Spike rush grows in clumps and the soft, thin green stems look like grass. Look for the flowers of the plant, which are crowded onto an oval spikelet at the tip of the stem.
Baltic Rush is common in brackish ponds and in the shoreward reaches of salt marshes. Its flowers are a deep brown to purple-brown colour.
Quillwort grows in mud a few inches deep or is submerged under the water. It is a small tufted plant with grass-like leaves. Like ferns, quillwort reproduces by spores. The spores are the size of a grain of salt and are located in a sac at the base of the leaf.
Arrowhead grows in freshwater ponds and gets its name from its thick tubers, which are a favourite food for ducks. The length and the shape of the leaf vary with the depth of the water.
The leaves of the Sweet Flag are iris-like. The flowers grow in small clusters on a spike-like stalk. The plant spreads under water by a creeping rootstock.
Salt marsh lines the leeward side of barrier island and is often called an estuary. Estuaries serve as a nursery to most of the nearshore creatures of the ocean, and feed many of the mammals and birds that live on the coast. The estuary also acts as a sponge and filter to keep our waterways clean. Serving as the foundation for the marine food chain, the estuary is a vital part of ocean ecosystems. The water in an estuary is brackish meaning it is a combination of fresh and salt water. The tides flood the estuary every six hours, which stirs up bottom nutrients that feed shellfish. As the tide recedes, it carries those nutrients out to offshore areas where it continues to supply organisms with food. At low tide, the estuary becomes an excellent feeding ground for upland animals. The animals and plants that live in the estuary must be very hardy because they have to deal with the tidal currents, changing salinity and large quantities of silt dumped at the mouth of creeks and rivers. Enjoy your stroll through this beautiful habitat and really look and listen to the animals and plants that make their home here.
Hammock Habitat - Hammocks are small tree islands bordered on all sides by salt marsh. These hammocks are an important part of the salt marsh ecosystem because they provide shelter, food, and nesting grounds for birds and other animals. The trees and shrubs here are specially adapted to live in sandy soil. There roots run deep to give them support and to reach groundwater. The following are detailed descriptions of a few of the plants and shrubs found in this unique habitat:
Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) A wide branching tree with thick, dark green glossy leaves. The leaves are covered with a waxy covering to protect them from the harmful effect of sea spray. This tree is called the Live Oak because it is evergreen, keeping it’s leaves throughout the winter. A few leaves do fall in March when new growth pushes them off the tree. The acorns from this tree are food for deer (up to 50% of their diet), squirrels, and birds. The limbs serve as cover for animals as well as a place for birds to nest.
Cabbage Palmetto, Sabal Palmetto (Sabal palmetto) The state tree of South Carolina, the Cabbage Palmetto’s range on the southeast coast is from Bald Head Island, N.C. to southern Florida. Bald Head Island marks the natural northern limit of this coastal plant. The logs of Cabbage Palmettos were once used to reinforce coastal forts.
Palmetto Minor (Sabal minor) Found along the entire Carolina coast, this member of the Palm family grows up to 6 feet tall and has fan-like fronds. The stem of the frond has smooth edges rather than spiked like the blades of the southern Saw Palmetto. Palmetto minor can be easily confused with a young Cabbage Palmetto.
Red Bay (Persea borbonia) This maritime forest tree rarely grows over 30 feet tall. This tree is best known for it’s aromatic leaves that are used to flavor foods. The leaves are shiny and evergreen with smooth edges, and the bark is reddish-brown. This plant is most common from Virginia south to Florida.
Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda) The Loblolly is one of the most common pine trees on the coastal plain. It colonizes secondary dunes quickly therefore helping to stabilize a newly forming maritime forest. The Loblolly needles come in bundles of three and are 5-10 inches long. The closer the pine to the ocean, and constant sea spray, the more stunted it will be. These pines love to grow in moist depressions called “loblollies” so that is how it received its name. Its range is from southern New Jersey to Florida.
Red Cedar, Juniper (Juniperus virginiana) The Juniper has scale-like leaves and light blue, cone-like berries that have a strong fragrance. Its bark is thin and stringy. In exposed areas, the Juniper can grow low to the ground or become twisted, but in protected areas it can grow as tall as 60 feet. In the past, Juniper has been valuable in making chests, cabinets, fence posts, and graphite pencils. Juniper is found throughout the eastern half of the nation.
Poison Ivy (Rhus toxicodendron) This is a vine that can commonly be mistaken for a harmless grape or Virginia Creeper vine. “Leaves of 3 let them be” is a statement used to warn people of the irritating affect poison ivy can have on your skin. Poison Ivy can be found on Bald Head from March to October and can be seen growing along the ground as well as twining around tree trunks. Do not touch the hairy vine or the shiny leaves because they contain a poisonous oil called urishiol, which causes an itchy rash.
Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) This is not a real moss, but a rootless bromeliad directly related to the pineapple plant. Spanish moss lives draped over the branches of hardwood trees and can be found from coastal Virginia to Argentina. This epiphyte takes up rainwater, sunlight and dust or minerals by simply absorbing it from where it lives. Deer sometimes eat this strange plant and it often used as nesting material for birds.
Salt Marsh Plants
Salt Marsh Cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) This is the dominating plant found in salt marshes along the Atlantic coast. This is also one of the hardiest plants in the salt marsh since it endures the most tidal inundation and therefore the greatest salinity. Cordgrass is very beneficial to stopping erosion since it holds together marsh soil that would otherwise be moved during storms. The vegetative matter that is produced by dead Cordgrass is extremely important to the food chain.
Saltmeadow Cordgrass, Saltmeadow Hay (Spartina patens) This relative of Salt Marsh Cordgrass is found in higher marsh flats where there is little tidal inundation. The leaves of this plant are thinner and shorter than that of S. alterniflora. Saltmeadow Cordgrass is found along the entire Atlantic coast. This plant was once used as hay for cattle, which gave it the common name Saltmeadow Hay.
Black Needlerush (Juncus roemerianus) This salt marsh plant grows at the highest tide line in the salt marsh and is about waist high. It is dark green or gray in appearance, and is found along the southern Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The plant is named Needlerush because the tip of the stem has a very sharp point.
Sea Oxeye Daisy (Borrichia frutescens) This plant has thick fleshy leaves and grows densely in high marsh areas. It ranges from the Virginia to Gulf Coast. The blooms are bright yellow and resemble that of daisies.
Glasswort, Pickle Weed (Salicornia virginica, S. europaea, S. bigelovii) These are very unique plants of the salt marsh with thick green stems and succulent branches. The stems are the color of jade with some species having bright red stems. This plant has the amazing ability to retain a large volume of salt therefore, by a process called osmosis, encouraging the uptake of freshwater from the surrounding soil. The plants are leafless and can be found along the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific Coasts. The fleshy stems can be pickled or used in seafood salads.
Plants that live on the edge between the hammock and salt marsh habitat.
Sea Myrtle, Groundsel (Baccharis halimifolia) A shrub that can grow up to 15 feet tall, its range is from Massachusetts to Florida and throughout the Gulf Coast. These shrubs grow along the high banks of the salt marsh and are dioecious, meaning an individual plant is composed of either male or female blossoms. The leaves are arranged alternately on the stem and are smaller towards the tip of each branch. Some herbalists say that Sea Myrtle resin is a treatment for colds, stomachaches and coughs. This shrub can be confused with Marsh Elder.
Marsh Elder (Iva frutescens) Found at the upper margins of the salt marsh, Marsh Elder rarely grows over 10 feet tall and has an opposite leaf arrangement. The serrated leaves are thick and are tapered at both ends. This shrub is most commonly found with Sea Myrtle.
Southern Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) Bayberry grows as a shrub along the margins of maritime forest communities or swale areas between secondary dunes. Bayberry has fragrantly spicy leaves that are dark green and fall off in late autumn. The wax on the bluish-gray berries can be melted down and used to give fragrance to candles. Bayberry can hybridize with wax myrtle, sometimes making identification difficult.
Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera, M. heterophylla) This is a common evergreen shrub that borders marshes and uplands. The leaves are leathery and narrow with a fragrance similar to that of Bayberry. The berries also have a spicy fragrance. Tree swallows will feed on the berries during the fall, and herons will use Wax Myrtle thickets to nest and roost.
Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria) A holly with small oval shaped leaves, Yaupon grows 5 to 15 feet tall from southeastern Virginia south along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The bright red berries can be seen in the fall and are eaten by a number of bird species. The leaves contain a high amount of caffeine and can be used to make a tea. From the late 18th to early 20th centuries, Yaupon leaves were processed on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and sold commercially as Yaupon Tea.
Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia compressa) This plant is typically found in a secondary dune habitat growing in large mats. Prickly Pear has beautiful yellow flowers in the summer which turn into sweet edible fruit by fall. But be careful, for you might see the large cactus spines, but the small almost invisible bristles can easily irritate the skin when handled.