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.
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