Flora: Spartina alterniflora

Spartina alterniflora or Sporobolus alterniflora

Spartina Marsh Grass


Ogeechee Riverkeeper is shining a spotlight on a humble yet essential inhabitant of our coastal marshes: Spartina alterniflora, (recently renamed by some botanists as Sporobolus alterniflora) commonly known as cordgrass or marsh grass. This remarkable plant plays a vital role in sustaining the health and integrity of our coastal environments.

Spartina marsh grass is a hardy perennial grass species that thrives in the salty, and brackish marshy habitats along Georgia coastlines. Characterized by tall, slender stems and vibrant green foliage, spartina serves as a cornerstone of coastal ecosystems, providing a multitude of benefits to both wildlife and humans alike. Its appearance changes throughout the seasons, shedding stalks in spring and flowering in fall.

Raccoon paw prints in marsh

The ecological significance of spartina marsh grass cannot be overstated. Importantly, it thrives in tidal zones with both salty ocean water and fresh water from rivers. As a foundational species within coastal marshlands, spartina performs a variety of crucial functions that contribute to the health and stability of these delicate ecosystems, including:

  • Habitat and Nursery Grounds: Spartina marshes serve as vital habitat and nursery grounds for a diverse array of fish, shellfish, and other aquatic organisms. The dense root systems of spartina plants provide shelter and protection for juvenile fish and crustaceans, helping to support healthy populations of commercially and recreationally valuable species.
  • Erosion Control: The extensive root systems of spartina marsh grass help to stabilize coastal soils and prevent erosion caused by tides, waves, and storms. By binding sediment together and reducing wave energy, spartina plays a critical role in protecting shorelines and coastal infrastructure from the impacts of erosion and sea level rise.
Skidaway Island State Park
  • Water Filtration: Spartina marshes act as natural filtration systems, capturing and trapping sediments, nutrients, and pollutants from runoff and tidal waters. Through a process known as phytoremediation, spartina helps to improve water quality and maintain the health of estuarine and marine ecosystems.
  • Carbon Sequestration: Like all plants, spartina marsh grass absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis, helping to mitigate the effects of climate change by sequestering carbon in its tissues and in the soil. Spartina marshes are highly effective carbon sinks, storing significant amounts of carbon in their biomass and organic-rich sediments.
Marsh shoreline near Butterbean Beach

Despite its ecological importance, spartina marsh grass faces a range of threats in today’s world. Coastal development, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, and climate change all pose significant challenges to the health and resilience of spartina marshes and the ecosystems they support. 

Interested in joining us in our efforts to protect spartina marsh grass and other coastal treasures? There are many ways to get involved, from volunteering at restoration sites to supporting policies and practices that promote coastal conservation. Through advocacy efforts, habitat restoration projects, and community engagement initiatives, ORK and its supports work to promote the health and resilience of our coastal ecosystems and ensure a sustainable future for all who depend on them.

Flora: Taxodium distichum

Taxodium distichum
Bald cypress tree

“Taxodium distichum, Deciduous cypress.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1837.

The bald cypress tree is a native to the Ogeechee River basin, with a network that stretches across the southern United States. Reaching heights of more than 100 feet tall and spanning diameters of 6 feet or more, this deciduous conifer echoes the giant nature of its relatives in the Redwood Forest. Under the right conditions, the bald cypress can live for centuries. 

Adorned with Spanish moss, bald cypress trees are often the tallest of the lot. Overhead, a canopy of color ranges from soft green to brilliant orange, to tan – depending on the season. As the name suggests, bald cypresses lose their needles in the fall and remain bare until late spring. In early growth stages, stringy layers of reddish-brown bark will peel off to reveal deeper, more pitted grooves with age. An elongated trunk fans out into a pleated, hollow base. 

The most interesting features are what are known as cypress knees (pneumatophores). These scraped up, wobbly mounds appear around the tree’s base in various shapes and sizes when water is present. They congregate in conical droves, but the true function of cypress knees remains unknown.

There is heavy speculation that these knobby structures are conduits for aeration. Acting like snorkels, cypress knees might deliver air to crucial points where water is high and dissolved oxygen is low. They may also help with nutrient absorption/distribution. 

The bald cypress tree shares a symbiotic relationship with the environment. Cypress trees found in wetlands are great storage units for excess water, which prevents downstream flooding and long-term erosion. Additionally, the bald cypress is a buffer that disengages toxins from the watershed.  

From crown to root, the bald cypress is home to a multitude of critters. Wading birds and large raptors use the treetops as vantage points for nesting or hunting. Smaller mammals, such as rats or squirrels, roost in the nooks and crannies of the trunk. The stumpy knees provide a habitat for frogs, lizards, fish, and even alligators.

Cones produced by the bald cypress are foraged as a food source. The round, greenish pellets that drop in the fall contain seeds that are edible to certain species (humans excluded). Throughout the winter, cones will ripen up and the seeds can then be enjoyed by squirrels, ducks, and wild turkey. 

Highly coveted in the lumber industry, the bald cypress tree upholds its reputation with endurance and strength. It is inherently resistant to water and slow to rot due to its “pecky” grain. Pecky cypress bears a malleable texture that is easy to work with and makes excellent indoor furniture for shelves, tables, or chairs. Finding the right piece can be like mining for gold.

To its advantage, the bald cypress has made a home in destinations that are uninviting and downright inaccessible to most loggers. The best lumber remains concealed by the murky mysteries of America’s swampland. ORk recommends one simply admires the bald cypress via a trip on the river.

– LP

Flora: Fothergilla gardenii


‘Fothergil a feuilles d’aune – Fothergilla alnifolia Lin.’ Dictionaire des sciences naturelles classee d’apres la methode naturelle de M. Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu.’, by Pierre Jean Francois Turpin, published in Paris and Strasbourg by F.G. Levrault, 1816-1829.

Fothergilla gardenii
Coastal witch-alder

Witch-alder is a small shrub in the witch-hazel family. It is found in the Ogeechee watershed but it is threatened as a species. Wild populations are rare, with just four having been found in the past 20 years. They flourish on the edge of swamps and riverbanks, in slightly acidic or sandy, neutral soil. It prefers a fair amount of sun, or even dappled shade. 

Its appearance changes greatly during the seasons. In spring, it displays white or cream ‘bottlebrush’ blooms with a sweet smell. Technically, these are pistils and stamens, with no petals at all. The blossoms often appear even before the light green foliage comes out. These attributes make them very popular with pollinators. After a summer of blue-green shrub leaves, it changes into vibrant reds and oranges for the fall.

Fall colors
Spring blooms

The plant is easily grown in home gardens and recommended as a native plant in the southeast United States. 

The genus name of the shrub is in honor of John Fothergill (1712-1780), a British doctor and botanist. He earned his medical degree at the University of Edinburgh, and was a Fellow of the Royal Society. Interested in botanical medicine, he pioneered new, sensible treatments for strep throat and was friends with fellow scientist Benjamin Franklin.

Portrait of John Fothergill; bust facing three-quarter to right; in an oval; after R. Livesay; illustration to Lettsom’s ‘Memoirs of John Fothergill’ (4th ed. London, 1786).

The species name honors Alexander Garden (1730-1791), a Scottish physician and plant enthusiast who lived in Charleston, South Carolina for several years. Garden studied and sent dozens of specimens to England botanical societies and to Carl Linnaeus in Sweden. The fragrant flower Gardenia is named in his memory.

Learn more about growing it in your backyard.


FLORA: Lobelia boykinii

Boykin’s Lobelia
Lobelia boykinii

Image by iNaturalist

Boykin’s lobelia forms networks of underground root colonies and is the only rhizome of the genus. It sprouts tall, slim stems that can grow to 3 feet tall. The blooms flower in a cluster at the top of each stem. The flower is a lovely violet-blue with a bit of white in the center.

Harvard Specimen Library

The plant needs specific environmental conditions in order to thrive, which is why it remains rare. Boykin’s lobelia lives in cypress swamps, Carolina bays, wetlands, wet pine flatlands, and ditches. These locations can be found throughout the Ogeechee watershed. It also requires cross-pollination by insects in order to reproduce. This combination of requirements is increasing difficult find in its natural habitat.

via iNaturalist

The species appears to have been first described in the 1830s and was included in the herbarium compiled by Alphonse Louis Pierre Pyramus de Candolle. Letters between A.W. Chapman and Dr. John Torrey held at Columbia University and mention finding a new species of lobelia in northern Florida.

According to the GA Department of Natural Resources (DNR), “Thirty-five populations have been documented since 1902 but only 7 have been confirmed since 2000, most of these on conservation lands.” The DNR suggests pesticide-free buffers, prevent clearing and filling of wetlands, and protect the water table and natural hydrology to make sure the plant species can thrive and return to normal population numbers. 

Flora: Tillandsia usneoides

Spanish moss
Tillandsia usneoides

Spanish moss isn’t really a moss at all; it’s an epiphyte or air plant. Botanically, it is closely related to the pineapple and absorbs nutrients and water through the air and rainfall. It does occasionally flower but it is rarely seen. The silver-gray plant grows in long, hair-like clumps, hanging from trees in subtropical climates.

According to botanical guides, it has “threadlike stems up to 6 to 7.5 metres (about 20 to 25 feet) long. The leaves, also threadlike, are about 2.5 to 7.5 centimetres (1 to 3 inches) long.”

Spanish Moss growing on live oak tree, South Carolina

It is commonly found living on the southern live oak (Quercus virginiana) and bald-cypress (Taxodium distichum) in the lowlands, swamps, and marshes of the southeastern United States and can be found as far west as Texas and southern Arkansas. It does not harm or kill the trees it lives on.

William Bartram described it, and its uses, in his 1770s travels to the area:

When fresh, cattle and deer will eat it in the winter season. It seems particularly adapted to the purpose of stuffing mattrasses, chairs, saddles, collars, &c. and for these purposes, nothing yet known equals it. The Spaniards in South America, and the West-Indies, work it into cables that are said to be very strong and durable; but, in order to render it useful, it ought to be thrown into shallow ponds of water, and exposed to the sun, where it soon rots, and the outside furry substance is dissolved. It is then taken out of the water, and spread to dry; when, after a little beating and shaking, it is sufficiently clean, nothing remaining but the interior, hard, black, elastic filament, entangled together, and greatly resembling horse-hair.

In the modern era, Spanish moss has been used for building insulation, mulch, packing material, mattress stuffing, and fiber. It was even used in the padding of car seats by Henry Ford who had a home in Richmond Hill and a dealership in Savannah.

Popular Science, June 1937, page 32

The etymology for “Spanish moss” is not known although it is often supposed it is related to a term used by French settlers in the southeastern U.S. in the 1700s. They called it barbe Espagnol, or Spanish beard, referring to the long beards popular among Spanish explorers of the era. It has become an iconic image of the South, including in Southern gothic literature and in folklore.

Image from NYPL Digital Collections. Live Oak Avenue, Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, Ga. Stereograph. 1880. The description on the reverse reads, in part: “The majority if these trees are of the Live Oak species, with but few others. The latter have long since passed away, but the sturdy oaks, with their hoary beard of moss, still defy the gales of the Atlantic and wintry blasts; and their rustling leaves whisper a ceaseless lullaby to the quiet and peaceful sleepers at their feet.”