Along the Coast: See seaside plants as habitat, not landscaping

Robb Barron in a healthy dune, standing in the midst of cocoplum, sea oats and sea lavender. Photos by Cheryl Blackerby/The Coastal Star

By Cheryl Blackerby
Robb Barron carefully tucked a sea oat seedling into a small hole in the sand, one of hundreds he planted last week on a dune washed bare by Sandy’s surge behind an oceanside Delray Beach estate.
    But between the sweep of sand next to the beach and the house was a hardy thicket of sea oats and palmetto that Barron had planted years ago. It not only had withstood Sandy, plus the three hurricanes of 2004 and 2005, but also had trapped more sand to build a wider and healthier dune.
    Nearby sea oats, flattened by the sand, are expected to stand up again. Barron also left the seaweed in the sand to add crucial nutrients for plant growth.
    Barron, owner of Robert Barron Coastal Management, replants damaged dunes and advises beach residents about building a healthy habitat that will stabilize the sand. He warned residents not to rake up seaweed and downed sea oats in the days after Sandy. It makes the beach look better immediately, but it is harmful for long-term preservation.
    Healthy native vegetation is crucial to protect coastal homes, says Leanne Welch, a shoreline program supervisor with the Department of Environmental Resources Management.
    “Well-maintained dunes are our first line of defense. Those native, salt-tolerant plants have evolved to hold that sand on the beach. Healthy dunes protect the beach and actually help grow it.”
    First and foremost, coastal residents should remember this: Respect the sea oat.
    This slender, dainty-looking grass is a powerhouse when it comes to beach preservation. It grows up to 3 feet, with the seed heads up 5 or 6 feet, and looks like it could blow away in a breeze. But the root system for young plants radiates outward more than 5 feet, down more than 5 feet and also hundreds of feet across when the roots’ network grows and intertwines.
    “I planted a 12-foot-wide strip of sea oats in 1984, and today it is 100 to 150 feet wide, and it has done it on its own,” Barron said. To restore a dune washed bare of plants, Barron first plants sea oats and other grasses and railroad vine, which has pretty purple flowers. After those plants are established, he adds plants such as palmettos and Spanish bayonet.
    Homeowners should be patient after a storm, he says, and let nature take its course.

Do’s and don’ts of beach maintenance after a storm
    * Do clean up trash such as plastic, bottles and storm debris that damages sea oats.
    * Don’t remove seaweed, although you can relocate it to other areas of a dune. “The ‘wrack line,’ basically the seaweed and marine plants that wash up, can help trap sand, and as it decays it provides nutrients for plants,” Welch said. “Migratory birds, too, actually depend on it as a vital source of food from creatures that wash up with it.”
    * Don’t remove sea oats if they’re flattened or covered by only a few inches of sand; they usually will grow back. “A sea oat is one of the hardiest plants out there,” said Welch. “I’ve seen them grow back after being buried by six to 18 inches of sand.”
    * Do replant sea oats, other grasses, railroad vine, then palmettos and other native beach vegetation, and be patient. “The sea oat won’t do much for a month after planting, then it will take off like a rocket, and in about three months will be as big as a bushel basket,” Barron said.
    * Think of replanting as habitat management, not landscaping, although the results are beautiful.
    * Never harm threatened and endangered species such as beach clustervine, bay cedar, sea lavender, thatch palm and silver palm.                              

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