Get to Know Coastal Wetlands

North Carolina's Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) enhances protection of coastal wetlands by Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act. CAMA defines a coastal wetland as any marsh subject to regular or occasional flooding by wind or lunar tides. These marshlands may contain one or more of the 10 species discussed below.

For the most part, it's easy to identify coastal wetlands. They generally are located adjacent to salty water, such as a sound, or other brackish water body. They are characterized by marsh grasses and rarely contain trees. Non-coastal wetlands, characterized by stands of trees or taller brush, may be located adjacent to coastal wetlands, but are not typically flooded by salty or brackish waters.

Coastal wetlands can be identified by determining if some of the following 10 plant species are present in the marsh land area:

1. Smooth Cordgrass: Spartina alterniflora
Smooth, or salt marsh cordgrass is the most common salt marsh plant and a prime indicator of a coastal wetland. It forms 1- to 8-foot-tall meadows that grow in the low marsh that is regularly flooded. Lush and green in the warmer months, smooth cordgrass becomes golden-brown in the fall and dies back in the winter. 

2. Black NeedlerushJuncus roemerianus
Black needlerush has tall (3 to 5 feet) needle-like blades in shades of dark green or gray with blackish tips. It grows in the higher areas of the marsh, where salt water only completely covers the land only during unusually high tides. In these higher elevations of the marsh, needlerush replaces cordgrass as the most common plant species.

3. Glasswort or PickleweedSalicornia spp.
Glasswort is found throughout the marsh, mixed in with cordgrass or on the mud flats. Glasswort grows low to the ground (rarely over 2 feet tall) and has short fleshy green stubby spikes extending from a main stem. Glasswort looks like long green pipe cleaners attached to a long stem. Three species are found in coastal marshes, and one turns pink in the fall.

4. Salt (or Spike) GrassDistichlis spicata
Salt grass is a short, green, wiry grass that lives in irregularly flooded salt marshes, brackish marshes, or tidal fresh marshes (less commonly).  Either found among the salt meadow coardgrass above the high tide line or in pure stands in wet depressions. Flowers from June through October. 

5. Sea LavenderLimonium spp.
Sea Lavender grows at the fringe of the upper intertidal marsh. The plant looks delicate, with long, skinny leaves that sprout small stems as they grow upward. These stems are covered with tiny purplish-white flowers in the summer and fall.

6. BulrushScirpus spp.
With its roots immersed in the mud or water, the bulrush grows into large, thick colonies. The plants can reach up to 10 feet tall, and the tops are crowned with spikelets. 

7. Saw GrassCladium jamaicens
Saw grass grows to about 6 or 7 feet tall, with long, slender, narrow leaves that look like tall blades of grass. These leaves are stiff and tough, with tiny saw teeth around the edges. The top of saw grass has many branches and branchlets.
 
8. CattailTypha spp.
Cattails are easily recognizable by their flower spikes, or cat tails. Cattail spikes can grow up to a foot long and are densely packed with tiny brown flowers. The cattail plant can grow to 10 feet tall. Cattails also commonly grow outside coastal wetlands along freshwater ponds, lakes, rivers and ditches.

9. Salt Meadow CordgrassSpartina patens
Salt meadow cordgrass, or hay, is a low- to medium-height perennial wire-like grass, 1-foot- to 3-feet-tall. It forms dense mats of plants just above the high tide line. 
 
10. Salt Reed or Giant CordgrassSpartina cynosuroides
Salt reed is a member of the same family as salt marsh cordgrass, and they have similar features. As its name suggests, this grass grows taller (up to 10 feet) and thicker than Spartina alterniflora.