Practical ecological knowledge for the temperate reader.

Distichlis spicata - Seashore saltgrass

Family: Poaceae (Grass) [E-flora]

Aquatic and wetland plants of southwestern United States (1972) (19127713953) [Wiki] Uniola spicata - Species graminum - Volume 3 [Wiki2]

"General: Perennial, dioecious grass from rhizomes, the rhizomes extensive, sharp-tipped, sometimes more or less stoloniferous; stems solid, sometimes decumbent, 10-40 cm tall/long." [IFBC-E-flora]

Var. spicata; "A sod-forming perennial, 10-40 cm tall, with solid (not hollow) stems and vigorous. scaly rhizomes." [PCBC2004]

"Distichlis spicata is a dioecious plant, its unisexual flowers gathered in dense panicles." [Kresovich & Wagner,1981]

Two varieties occur in BC

Habitat / Range

"Sandy lake shores and moist alkaline meadows in the steppe zone (var. stricta) or coastal beaches and salt marshes (var. spicata); var. spicata - frequent in SW BC; var. stricta - common in SC BC; var. stricta - E to SK and S to MO, OK, TX and CA; var. spicata - S to CA, disjunct to E coast of North America." [IFBC-E-flora]

"The interior variety of this species (D. spicata var. stricta or alkali saltgrass) occurs in saline or alkaline mead- ows and on sandy lake-shores." [PCBC2004]

"It grows naturally in areas where the depth to groundwater generally is less than 8 ft (2.4 m)." [Landmeyer IPCG]

"coastal marshes and shores, especially common in hypersaline flats (where infrequent tidal inundation is followed by evaporation); common. June-October. Two varieties (or subspecies or species) have often been recognized: var. spicata ranging along the Atlantic coast from NS and PE south to tropical America, and on the Pacific coast of North America, and var. stricta (Torrey) Scribner widespread in saline situations in western North America. These do not appear to warrant taxonomic recognition (Barkworth in FNA 2003a)." [Weakley FSMAS]

"Coastal salt marshes were at one time much more extensive than today,forming important habitat rich in plant and animal life. Salt marshes occur in the upper intertidal zone of sheltered shallow bays, river mouths, and coastal lagoons. ... The upper zone, where the vegetation is submerged for less than five hours at a time, is home to alkali heath (Frankenia salina), sea lavender (Limonium californicum), saltgrass (Distichlis spicata), and California sea-blite (Suaeda californica).45" [Anderson TTW]

Status: Native [E-flora]


Edible Uses


Other Uses

Fodder & Soil Stabilization  

Medicinal Uses


"The Kawaiisu took a decoction of the plants for insect bites, to slow a heart beating too fast, as a laxative, and to treat gonorrhea. The Yokut used a salt extract to treat bad colds and to improve a lost appetite." [Daniel F. Austin]


"Although there are no formal monitoring data available, wetlands in Utah that receive high-intensity, short-duration grazing appear to respond best, with Distichlis spicata replacing Phragmites after 3 years of grazing rotation (Rich Hansen, Utah Department of Wildlife Resources, pers. comm.), and increases in shorebirds and waterfowl as well (Chad Cranney, Utah Department of Wildlife Resources, pers. comm.)." [Hazelton,2014]

Salinity tolerance

"Over evolutionary time, plants developed mechanisms that allow them to survive in a given environment that has specific conditions. Sometimes these environmental conditions are harsh. A number of plants that are tolerant of, and grow in, saline environments secrete salts from their leaves using specialized salt glands. The leaves taste salty because of these saline secretions. One such plant is salt grass, Distichlis spicata, which grows in such areas as the “playas” or salt flats near the Great Salt Lake and the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah or in the saline soils of the Sacramento Valley of California. Scanning electron micrographs of the surfaces of the leaves of salt grass reveal glands and toothpaste-like secretions that emanate from these glands. If one makes x-ray analysis maps for sodium, potassium, and chlorine of the same area imaged with the scanning electron microscope, the images seen on the CRT (cathode ray tube) will reveal bright-dot images over each toothpaste-like secretion (Hanson et al., 1976). This tells researchers which elements are present in the secretions. From this information, it was shown that these secretions are potassium chloride and sodium chloride, corresponding to the predominant salts in the soil or in brackish water in which these plants grow. To avoid possible damage due to the osmotic effects of salt, these plants simply secrete the salt that is taken up by the roots, thus keeping it out of the plant’s cells." [T&F NPP]

"The salinity in the substratum of a salt marsh is typically slightly less than that of seawater. When the marsh is inundated by high tides, however, plants growing in it are temporarily exposed to water of greater salinity. Some species, including seashore salt grass (Distichlis spicata), maintain a constant salinity in their tissues by excreting excess salt; others, such as pickleweed (Salicornia virginica), accumulate salt and can tolerate concentrations nearly double that of seawater." [Kozloff PWO] "Stomatal features like density and size are critical for controlling transpirational loss from leaf surface and even more critical under physiological droughts (Hameed et al. 2009). The importance of stomatal characteristics in avoiding water loss through leaf surface has been reported several species like Distichlis spicata (Kemp and Cunningham 1981), barley (Gill and Dutt 1982), and wheat (Akram et al. 2002)." [Ashraf PAP] "Sodium appears to be essential for the C4 grasses such as proso millet (Panicum miliaceum L.), kleingrass (P. coloratum L.) and saltgrass (Distichlis spicata Greene) (20,147,148) and has been found to stimulate the growth of grasses such as marsh grass (Sporobolus virginicus Kunth) and alkali sacaton (S. airoides Torr.) in some studies (149–151)." [Barker HPN

"Australia has about 32 Mha of salt-affected land, the most of which is subject to primary salinity mainly in rangeland areas. Secondary salinity usually affects higher-value agricultural or irrigated land, and at least 5.7 Mha of land is at high risk of secondary salinity and 17 Mha is estimated to be at high risk by the year 2050 (Barrette-Lennard 2003 ). In Southern Australia, clearing of native vegetation for annual crops and pastures is recognized as a major cause of waterlogging and secondary salinity. Pastures are one of many means of obtaining productive use and rehabilitation of waterlogged affected soils.... Some of the most useful species for Australian salt-affected soils have been introduced from overseas and performed well, and those include Puccinellia ciliata and Thinopyrum ponticum (Tall wheatgrass) from Turkey, Atriplex undulata (wavy leaf saltbush) from Argentina and Atriplex lentiformis (quail bush) and Distichlis spicata from the USA." [Dagar AMW]

"Yuvaniyama and Arunin ( 1993) reported the potential of three halophytic grass species on saline soils in Thailand: Sporobolus virginicus have two forms suitable for high salinity and waterlogged conditions and had the highest Na/K ratio (26.5); Spartina patens are suitable for salt marshes and could yield 7 Mg ha−1 on saline soils of Egypt, with Na/K ratio of 11.1; and Distichlis spicata was relatively less tolerant than other two species with Na/K ratio 1.2 only." [Dagar AMW

"Halophytes have been considered as potential crops for reuse of saline drainage water in the western portion of the San Joaquin Valley of California. Six halophytic species (Salicornia bigelovii, Atriplex lentiformis, Distichlis spicata, Spartina gracilis, Allenrolfea occidentalis and Bassia hyssopifolia ) were cultivated under long-term irrigation with saline drainage water by Diaz et al. ( 2003). The results indicated that all species grew well under high saline-sodic soil conditions". [Dagar AMW]

"In salt-tolerant plants, either no effect of NaCl on N uptake is observed or only high concentrations of NaCl affect growth and N uptake.... When growth and N uptake by a number of clones of a halophytic plant species salt grass (Distichlis spicata L.) were observed under 20 dSm−1salt stress level, using the 15N technique, almost no difference in N uptake by most of the clones was observed under salt stress compared with the control plants (Pessarakli et al., 2012)." [Pessarakli HPCP]

"Shade may also have indirect facilitative effects. Shade provided by salt-tolerant species in salt marshes appears to reduce evaporation from subcanopy soils and consequently maintain lower soil salinities than in those soils exposed to direct insolation (Bertness and Hacker 1994, Callaway 1994). Bertness (1991) and Bertness and Shumway (1993) experimen- tally manipulated soil salinity in the upper zones of a New England salt marsh and found that Distichlis spicata, a salt-tolerant colonizer of saline bare patches, facilitated the growth of Juncus gerardi when soil salinities were high. When soil salinities were artificially reduced by watering, growth of Juncus was not improved by Distichlis."[Pugnaire FPE]

Fungal Relationships

"Although VAM [vesicular arbuscular mycorrhizal]fungi are neither generally host nor habitat specific (MOSSE 1975), differential sensitivity to saline and flooding conditions of species of VAM fungi cannot be ruled out beforehand. VAM fungi seem to be more habitat specific than host specific. Insalty primary coastal dunes NICOLSON & JOHNSTON (1979) found the common species Glomus fasciculatus as the endophyte in Agropyron junceiforme. The same G. fasciculatus was found in the C-4 grass species Bouteloua gracilis of arid rangeland (ALLEN & BOOSALIS 1983), as well as in the salt-tolerant desert grass Distichlis spicata (BACH ALLEN & CUNNINGHAM 1983). These data suggest that the same VAM could occ.ur in the lower and upper parts of salt marshes. The zonation of salt marsh halophytes is not clearly followed by a gradation in the appearance of VA mycorrhiza (table 1), since both the group of lower and upper marsh species differ markedly with respect to the presence of VAM. Perhaps a quantitative analysis ofmycorrhiza comparing VAM in plants of the same plant species in the lower and upper marsh could illustrate the influence of soil salinity and anaerobiosis on VAM infection." [Rozema,1986]

"In well drained playas, predominantly vegetated with Distichlis spicata both percentage infection and spore number were negatively correlated with sodium content of the soil over a range of 153-1160 mg/gm (Kim and Weber, 1985)." [Mukerji MB]

"... Cooke et al. (1993) found vesicles in roots of salt marsh species Spartina patens and Distichlis spicata down to 42 cm in depth, arbuscules were only found to a depth of 37 cm, with a significant reduction in abundance below 25 cm." [Dighton FEP]

AMF species include; Glomus pansihalos [Souza HAMF]

Wildlife habitat

"Seaside sparrows breed almost exclusively in tidal marshes along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the United States. The northern subspecies (A. m. maritimus) occurs from northern Virginia through New Hampshire and nests in both high and low marsh (Post and Greenlaw 1994). Post (1974) found that seaside sparrows nesting in unaltered Spartina marsh maintained clusters of small nesting territo- ries of approximately 0.1 hectares and jointly used feeding areas, whereas in ditched marshes territories were all purpose and much larger at approximately 0.9 hectares. Nests are usually located in Spartina alterniflora but have also been ob- served in Spartina patens (salt meadow cordgrass) and Distichlis spicata (spike- grass) (Marshall and Reinert 1990; Post and Greenlaw 1994). Saltmarsh and sea- side sparrows often nest within the same habitat and are closely related to one another (Zink and Avise 1990)." [SER TMR]


Distichlis spicata subsp. stricta (Torr.) Thorne [E-flora]
Distichlis spicata var. borealis (J. Presl) Beetle [E-flora], var. divaricata Beetle [E-flora], var. nana Beetle [E-flora], var. stolonifera Beetle [E-flora], var. stricta (Torr.) Scribn. [E-flora]
Distichlis stricta (Torr.) Rydb. [E-flora], var. dentata (Rydb.) C.L. Hitchc. [E-flora]
Uniola spicata L. [E-flora]

Distichlis Sp.

"Distichlis is a genus of four or five species, confined to saline and alkaline habitats in the Americas and Australia (Felger 2000)." [Daniel F. Austin] "A genus of about 10 species, of North, Central, and South America, and Australia. Bell & Columbus (2008) recircumscribe Distichlis to include Monanthochloe Engelmann and Reederochloa Soderstrom & H.F. Decker."[Weakley FSMAS]

"Rea (1997) found the Pima still remembered the plant and its name, but they used it only for cattle food. Nonetheless, if the plants on the Colorado River delta are considered the same species, they and others ate the seeds. Some consider those plants to be D. spicata ssp. stricta, while most now call them D. palmeri (Felger 2000, Hodgson 2001). These plants were harvested in great quantities by the Cocopa prior to the devastation of the ecosystem by construction of upriver dams. Those people ate the seeds in atole." [Daniel F. Austin]

Salt Tolerant Species: "There are also possibilities for creating perennial cereals, such as a hybrid between Zea mays and the perennial Z. diploperennis to produce a perennial maize, or the domestication of the perennial Distichlis palmeri (Palmer saltgrass), which is capable of tolerating salinity levels up to 56.0 dS m-1." [Wickens, EB]


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Page last modified on Feb 4, 2024