In the Garden: On the Beach

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By Charles Kidder

If you spent time at the beach this past summer, think about some of the things that made it so enjoyable. The bright sunshine—but only if you had an umbrella or beach shelter and slathered on the sunscreen. Cool breezes off the ocean—but only if they weren’t strong enough to sandblast you or knock over your umbrella. The warm, salty ocean—provided that a big wave didn’t slap you down or give you a saline mouthful. Most of the things that make the beach enjoyable for people—or perhaps occasionally somewhat less than great fun—can have the same effect on plants.

Plants at the beach have to endure bright sunlight, dry nutrient-poor shifting sands and salty winds off the water. Compared to their inland cousins, they’re a tough lot.  If you’re contemplating landscaping your beach cottage or maybe just want to learn more about what grows there, here are some of the best Beach Survivors.

Grasses—On the foredune, just landward from the flat area where beachgoers set up camp, grasses are by far the most abundant plants.  From Virginia southward, sea oats (Uniola paniculata) is one of the mainstays of the dunes, its tawny seed heads becoming conspicuous in late summer.  It tolerates salt, as well as the extreme heat of the reflective dunes, and accepts burial by the shifting sand. In fact, burial encourages growth of the plant’s rhizomes and allows it to spread and stabilize dunes. Sea oats is protected by law in most states on the southeast coast.

American beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata) is highly salt-tolerant, although it also happily grows on the non-salty beaches of the Great Lakes. Not only accepting of burial by sand, beach grass seemingly demands it, failing to thrive just a few yards back from the foredune.  When it’s happy, its rhizomes can spread six to ten feet out to colonize new areas. The ten-inch flower spike appears in mid-summer, but won’t rival sea oats for showiness.

Panicum amarum or bitter panicgrass grows along much of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. One of the more robust beach grasses, leaves may be eighteen inches long, the entire plant growing up to seven feet tall. The leaves typically have a bluish cast; the cultivar ‘Dewey Blue’ is exceptional in this regard.

Other beach grasses are less salt-tolerant than those just mentioned and grow a few yards back from the dune. One of the showiest is muhly grass or hairawn muhly (Muhlenbergia cappilaris), with its cloud of pink-purple flowers in early autumn. In case you don’t have a beach house, muhly grass is also happy far from the coast.

Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana), a South American native, is commonly planted on southern beaches. Its tall plumes of flowers are quite showy, but some report that it is invading native habitats on the Atlantic coast. I can’t attest to that, but it’s definitely a pest in California.

Perennials—a couple of herbaceous perennials stand out for their ability to withstand beachside conditions, as well as for their reliable showiness.  Seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) is the most common, a native from Canada down to Florida and across to Texas.  It is a robust plant with waxy evergreen leaves at the base, growing three to six feet tall.  Depending on latitude, typical yellow goldenrod flowers appear from August into November.  An even more colorful plant is blanket flower or firewheel (Gaillardia pulchella), with reddish flowers bordered in yellow.  It reportedly grows to two feet tall, but most that I have seen are a good bit shorter.  Despite its brilliant colors, it can almost remain hidden among taller grasses until you’re right on top of it.  It is native to the western United States across to North Carolina, but will grow farther north.  It is considered to be either a short-lived perennial or an annual.

Vines—Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)is pretty happy at the beach and provides brilliant fall color, not a common trait among seaside plants.  (Ditto for poison ivy, but no need to plant that.)

Trees and Shrubs—The distinction between these two groups becomes especially murky at the beach. A plant that is a scrubby shrub close to the ocean may become a decent-sized tree a few hundred yards back from the beach.  Perhaps the most common tree around many beach homes is the Japanese Black Pine (Pinus thunbergii), widely planted from Cape Cod to the Outer Banks. Under these conditions it never gets very tall, but assumes a spreading, artistic form. It reportedly is short-lived in the south, and I did see a fair number of dead trees on a recent visit to the Outer Banks.

We’re all familiar with the eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), although it’s not a salt-tolerant tree. The variety silicicola is very much so, however, and occurs as a  native from North Carolina down to Florida and Texas.  It should also do okay if planted as far north as Virginia Beach.

The live oak (Quercus virginiana) is native from southern Hampton Roads and on south. A large tree in the interior, it grows as a stunted, salt-sculpted specimen near the beach. Its cousin sand live oak (Q. geminata) is smaller and also survives in deep sand and salt spray.

Two species of wax myrtle grow well at the beach:  the evergreen southern wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera) is native from North Carolina southwards. Its deciduous relative bayberry (M. pensylvanica) fills the same niche further north. Both bear waxy berries that birds relish.

A couple of things to avoid in your beach landscape: one is thorny elaeagnus (Elaeagnus pungens) a potentially invasive plant that also scrambles up through adjoining plants and is a general nuisance.  The other: attempting to transform a beach property into a suburban landscape.  An irrigated lawn not only looks out of place, but squanders a precious resource.

And if you can dodge hurricanes, fall is a great time to get down to the beach.  Still lots in bloom, and temps are cooler.

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