November 20, 2020
Glasswort can light up a marsh in autumn


by Mary Reid Barrow

If you are lucky, a small bright red plant down among the reeds in the high marsh may catch your eye as you take an autumn walk. 

The plant is truly fiery red.  Once several years ago, I saw a large patch of it along the 64th Street trail in First landing State Park.  The color was so vivid  that for a moment, I did think the marsh was on fire!

 This surprising little plant is Salicornia  or glasswort.  Small and  fleshy, its “leaves” are all but invisible.  Glasswort looks more like light green deer antlers than a leafy plant.   In the summer, it’s a little lost down among Spartina , sea lavender and other marsh plants in late summer:

  But come fall, glasswort is ablaze! 

 I haven’t seen  another display as I saw  several years go, though I have seen single plants here and there,  both in First Landing and at Pleasure House Point, this fall.  I wonder if recent high tides haven’t affected glasswort’s fall display this year.

Little but tough, glasswort is very salt tolerant but doesn’t need salt water to thrive.  It can sometimes  be the plant that begins to grow and reestablish life in bare disturbed areas of the marsh. Not only do some animals dine on its fleshy stems, but it also has been useful to  humans over the years.

Centuries ago, glasswort was burned for its soda ash which was used in glass making, thus its common name.   I was surprised to find information on the Internet for ways to prepare glasswort to eat.  Salty and crunchy, it’s said to be akin to seaweed in salads or sautéed with other vegetables.    Seeds are available on the internet if anyone is interested in growing glasswort  but gathering it in the wild would be illegal  at any public beach or marsh.  

 Many species of Salicornia live both here in the United  States and around the world.  Locally, the species you are apt to see is probably Salicornia virginica.

 The marsh turns a beautiful toasty brown and yellow in autumn, but in good years, the marsh with glasswort in  brilliant red can even compete with the forest for autumn color.

 Do you have a favorite tree or plant with a story to tell?  What relationships have you observed  between plants and critters?  Who eats whom?  Who has babies where?   Send an email to


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