Saturday, August 12, 2017

Salt lovers

At Oyster Bay, water currents, over the last 5 years or so, have built up a long spit at right angles to the breakwater, gravelly on the higher portions, pure sand at the inner edge.

The new spit almost encloses the bay (to the left). At the lowest tide, it is almost possible to walk to the mainland from here.

The spit, so far, is almost barren of plant life, but at the upper end, a healthy population of pickleweed is settling in happily.

Pickleweed, aka glasswort, sea aparagus, samphire, Salicornia pacifica.

Pickleweed is a halophyte, a salt plant.

The word derives from Ancient Greek ἅλας (halas) 'salt' and φυτόν (phyton) 'plant'. (Wikipedia)

Whereas salt kills most plants, some Salicornias can't survive in fresh water. It is a land plant; it needs to be out of the water at some point during the day; but where there is no salt, whether from tidal waters or salt spray, it will not grow.

At the very end of the breakwater, the tide comes in, bathing the growing pickleweed. This whole area, rocks included, will be completely underwater at high tide.

Salt, however, is a problem in plant tissues. The concentration has to be contained within certain limits: if there is too little, if the cell juices are too watered down, in these plants that live in salt water, osmosis draws the water out into the more highly concentrated sea water. It's as if the plant were living in a desert.

But if the salt concentration in the plant tissue is too high, the normal functions of the cell are disrupted. Pickleweed deals with this by concentrating salts in the terminal segments of the stems; eventually these tips turn red and fall off, taking the salt with them.

Flowering tips of pickleweed

The plant is a succulent; it has fat, leafless stems, each with a knobby tip, sometimes pink or red, sometimes green. The flowers are found on these knobs, but are extremely small, clustered in groups of 3 in the joints. They are wind-pollinated, and will produce one seed per flower.

Zooming in, to show the pale yellow flowers.

A curious discovery: I had walked out to the end of the new spit, and was returning, hurrying to beat the incoming tide. At the spot where the spit meets the breakwater, (the third photo above) the water was already ankle deep. But the current was moving from the inner bay to the outer ocean.

In the photo above, the water comes from the open strait, but once it breaks over the spit, the direction changes; water goes down to the end, into the bay, and out into the strait again, washing the bay as it goes. With time, this may change the muddy, stinking character of the inner bay. Something to watch.

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