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Brief Summary

Species Abstract

Distichlis spicata is broadly ditributed in North, Central and South America. This terrestrial grass thrives in many coastal environments, as well as inland salt flats and other saline soil substrate.

Also known as Seashore saltgrass or Inland saltgrass, this rhizomous perennial exhibits erect stems rising to a height of up to 50 centimeters. The stiff leaf blades are typically two to ten centimeters long and one to four millimeters wide. Inflorescence panicle-like, 2–8 cm,

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Comprehensive Description


General: Grass Family (Poaceae). Inland saltgrass is a native, dioecious low, glabrous perennial, with scaly rhizomes. Culms are erect, varying in heights of 1.5 – 4.5 dm, less tall in dense colonies. Lower leaves consist of sheaths only, which are overlapping and glabrous. Sheath margins are scarious and sparsely ciliated apically. Leaves are mostly cauline and vertically two-ranked. Blades are firm, the edges often flat at the base and folded or rolled inward meeting in the middle, therefore, appearing attenuate. Blades are generally less than 10 cm long. Salt crystals may be found on the leaves and stems. The ligules are stiff, membranous and apically ciliate. Ligules range in lengths between 0.2-0.5 mm long. The inflorescences are dense, spike-like panicles, which range from 5-7 cm long or less. Spikelets are 3-10 flowered and are laterally flattened.

Disarticulation is above the glumes and between the florets. The two glumes are unequal in size. Glumes are keeled and hard on the back. The margins of the glumes are scarious; the first glume is 1-3 nerved and 1.5-2.5 mm long. The second glume is 3-5 nerved and 2-3 mm long. The lemmas are rounded on the back and have 9-11 faint nerves. Lemmas are acute to cuspidate and 3-4 mm long. The lemma margins are scarious. Paleas are 2-nerved, 3-5 mm long, falcate, and are sharply keeled, the keel very finely hispid-ciliate. The palea margins are scarious and are in-rolled.

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USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center & the Louisiana State Office

Source: USDA NRCS PLANTS Database


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Alternative names

Inland saltgrass, seashore saltgrass, spike grass, and alkali grass

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USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center & the Louisiana State Office

Source: USDA NRCS PLANTS Database


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More info for the term: marsh

Saltgrass is distributed widely across North America. It occurs from Mexico [200,225,338] north to the Northwest Territories, east to Maine and south to Florida and the Gulf Coast of the United States [137,155,175,274,318]. It also occurs in Hawaii [318]. In the western United States, saltgrass occurs in both coastal and inland communities [35,80,89,90,137,148,152,156], whereas it is predominantly found only in coastal salt marsh communities along the Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf Coast of the United States [60,93,130,131,255]. Grass Manual on the Web provides a distributional map of saltgrass.


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States or Provinces

(key to state/province abbreviations)


B.C.N. B.C.S. Coah. Mex.


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Regional Distribution in the Western United States

More info on this topic.

This species can be found in the following regions of the western United States (according to the Bureau of Land Management classification of Physiographic Regions of the western United States):


1 Northern Pacific Border

3 Southern Pacific Border

5 Columbia Plateau

6 Upper Basin and Range

7 Lower Basin and Range

8 Northern Rocky Mountains

9 Middle Rocky Mountains

10 Wyoming Basin

11 Southern Rocky Mountains

12 Colorado Plateau

13 Rocky Mountain Piedmont

14 Great Plains

15 Black Hills Uplift

16 Upper Missouri Basin and Broken Lands


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For current distribution, please consult the Plant Profile page for this species on the PLANTS Web site.

Public Domain

USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center & the Louisiana State Office

Source: USDA NRCS PLANTS Database


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Physical Description



More info for the terms: adventitious, dioecious, marsh, monopodial, natural, rhizome, warm-season

This description provides characteristics that may be relevant to fire ecology, and is not meant for identification. Keys for identification are available [35,60,70,80,89,90,93,130,131,133,137,148,156,176,186,190,211,226,231,255,330,338,347,348].

Saltgrass is a warm-season, sod-forming, low-growing, native perennial [6,21,22,64,70,133,170,176,185,231]. At maturity, saltgrass grows to a height of 6 to 18 inches (15-45 cm) [161,175,251,318], but generally does not grow taller than 12 inches (30 cm) [206], particularly when in dense colonies [131]. In pure stands, saltgrass is extremely dense. Tolstead [312] observed 2,616 saltgrass stems/3 foot² along the shore of Clear Lake in the Nebraska sandhills. When found in "hypersaline" areas, saltgrass may grow in a dwarfed form [98,260,321]. Saltgrass grows in a dwarfed form on soil with salinity levels as high as 8.1% around Stink and Bitter lakes, South Dakota [321,322].

Saltgrass's aerial culms are decumbent to erect, solid, and wiry [52,137,156,231]. Leaves are distributed fairly equally up the entire length of the culms [133]. The leaf blades are spreading, crowded, flat, sharp-pointed, usually 0.8 to 4.7 inches (2-12 cm) long and 1 to 3.5 mm wide [190,305,318]. Saltgrass is strongly rhizomatous [70,133,152]. Rhizomes are scaly and reach average depths of 4 to 10 inches (10-30 cm) in the soil [144,161,181,206,275]. Rhizome growth is monopodial [41]. Rhizomes and roots of saltgrass create dense mats [65,103]. Saltgrass rhizomes have sharp points with numerous epidermal silica cells that aid in penetration of heavy soils [144]. At Goshen, Utah, rhizomes reached a length of 71 inches (180 cm) [144].

Saltgrass is dioecious. The pistillate panicles, which are often congested, are 0.4 to 3 inches (1-7 cm) long and produce 2 to 20 spikelets [35,89,137,148,175,186,228,305,318]. The spikelets are unisexual, 8 to 22 mm long, and 5- to 18-flowered [35,70,89,137,148,186,228,305,318]. Fruits are awnless caryopses, 2 to 5 mm long [7,61,70,175]. The male inflorescence of saltgrass is larger, more dense, and on longer culms than the inflorescence of female plants [242].

The root system of saltgrass is adventitious. Roots of saltgrass have tissue with an empty cavity which is continuous with the empty cavity tissue in the rhizomes and leaf sheath providing an aerenchymatous network that allows for gas exchange under very wet soil conditions, during brief periods of partial submersion in water, in anoxic environments, and/or growth in heavy clay soils [71,144]. Saltgrass roots grow to depths of 28 inches (70 cm) on natural sand dunes created by artesian wells emerging from playas at Owens Lake, California. The greatest concentration of roots is in the 4- to 16-inch (10-40 cm) zone. Some of the saltgrass roots and rhizomes with an oxidized rhizosphere were found to penetrate approximately 4 inches (10 cm) into an anoxic soil zone [71]. In a tidal salt marsh in Connecticut, saltgrass roots reached a maximum of 16.7 inches (42.5 cm) in the sandy soils [65]. Soil samples were taken at the Price Lake Area of the Rockefeller Refuge, Louisiana, to determine the depth to which the roots and rhizomes of saltgrass reach in the soil. The percent of a saltgrass plant's roots and rhizomes at various depths in the soil are presented below [217]:

Depth in inches Roots (%) Rhizomes (%)
0-1 27.03 25.36
1-2 28.13 35.69
2-3 18.68 24.43
3-4 9.24 9.13
4-5 5.76 5.09
5-6 3.36 0.01
6-7 2.49 0.0
7-8 2.22 0.0
8-9 1.82 0.0
9-10 1.27 0.0

Saltgrass roots in Connecticut are colonized by vesicular arbuscular mycorrhizae (VAM) fungi from 1 inch (2.5 cm) to 16.7 inches (42.5 cm) below the soil surface [65]. Several authors discuss the effects of VAM on the growth of saltgrass [63,65,66,158,182].

As a clonal plant, saltgrass can share resources among ramets in patchy environments. This allows saltgrass to expand into habitats more suitable for growth, and support ramets experiencing physical stress. Numerous studies have evaluated the importance of saltgrass clonal growth to survive physical stress in hypersaline environments along the Atlantic coast [29,30,41,246,283] and the deserts of the southwestern United States [6,144].

Saltgrass plants commonly grow in female- or male-majority populations, a pattern known as spatial segregation of the sexes [112]. Eppley [101] studied saltgrass populations in 3 salt marshes in central California at Tomales Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore, and Bodega Bay Marine Laboratory. She found that habitats with female majorities are located at significantly (p<0.05) lower elevations in the marshes than are habitats with male majorities. Eppley also concluded that soil salinity levels were not significantly (p<0.05) different between male- (8.75 mS/cm) and female- (8.72 mS/cm) majority populations [101].

Eppley and others [103] further concluded that flowering saltgrass ramets are significantly (p<0.0001) more likely to have neighbors of the same sex than of the opposite sex. They provide 3 explanations for spatial segregation of the sexes in saltgrass: 1) Since saltgrass propagates by rhizomes, patches exhibiting gender bias may be caused by local asexual proliferation by one or a few genets. 2) Spatial segregation of flowering ramets could be caused by different clonal growth rates by males and females in different habitats. 3) Differential flowering rates by male and female plants in different microhabitats causes spatial segregation [103].

Saltgrass has a 2-celled salt gland found on both the adaxial and abaxial leaf surfaces either in the furrows or along the sides of the ridges that allows for the extrusion of salt. Salt is excreted by pressure through the cuticle, which covers the cap cell of the salt gland [144,151,329,346].

Several authors note that the rate of photosynthesis in saltgrass plants increases with increased light intensity and decreases with heightened soil salinity levels [178,262,309,329]. Hence, with lower photosynthesis rates, saltgrass plants growing in increasingly higher saline environments exhibit a reduction in net productivity and growth [329].


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Physical Description

Perennials, Aquatic, leaves emergent, Terrestrial, not aquatic, Rhizomes present, Rhizome elongate, creeping, stems distant, Stolons or runners present, Stems nodes swollen or brittle, Stems erect or ascendi ng, Stems caespitose, tufted, or clustered, Stems terete, round in cross section, or polygonal, Stems branching above base or distally at nodes, Stem internodes hollow, Stems with inflorescence less than 1 m tall, Stems, culms, or scapes exceeding basal leaves, Leaves mostly cauline, Leaves conspicuously 2-ranked, distichous, Leaves sheathing at base, Leaf sheath mostly open, or loose, Leaf sheath smooth, glabrous, Leaf sheath hairy, hispid or prickly, Leaf sheath hairy at summit, throat, or collar, Leaf sheath and blade differentiated, Leaf blades disarticulating from sheath, deciduous at ligule, Leaf blades linear, Leaf blades 2-10 mm wide, Leaf blade margins folded, involute, or conduplicate, Leaf blades mostly glabrous, Ligule present, Ligule a fringed, ciliate, or lobed membrane, Inflorescence terminal, Inflorescence a contracted panicle, narrowly paniculate, branches appressed or ascending, Inflorescence solitary, with 1 spike, fascicle, glomerule, head, or cluster p er stem or culm, Inflorescence a panicle with narrowly racemose or spicate branches, Inflorescence with 2-10 branches, Rachis angular, Flowers unisexual, Plants dioecious, Spikelets pedicellate, Spikelets laterally compressed, Spikelet less than 3 mm wide, Spikelets with 3-7 florets, Spikelets with 8-40 florets, Spikelets solitary at rachis nodes, Spikelets unisexual, Spikelets disarticulating above the glumes, glumes persistent, Spikelets disarticulating beneath or between the florets, Rachilla or pedicel glabrous, Glumes present, empty bracts, Glumes 2 clearly present, Glumes distinctly unequal, Glumes shorter than adjacent lemma, Glumes 3 nerved, Glumes 4-7 nerved, Lemma coriaceous, firmer or thicker in texture than the glumes, Lemma 3 nerved, Lemma 5-7 nerved, Lemma glabrous, Lemma apex acute or acuminate, Lemma awnless, Lemma straight, Palea present, well developed, Palea membranous, hyaline, Palea about equal to lemma, Palea 2 nerved or 2 keeled, Palea keels winged, sc abrous, or ciliate, Stamens 3, Styles 2-fid, deeply 2-branched, Stigmas 2, Fruit - caryopsis.
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Dr. David Bogler

Source: USDA NRCS PLANTS Database


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Type Information

Type collection for Festuca triticoides Lam.
Catalog Number: US 2851252
Collection: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany
Preparation: Pressed specimen
Collector(s): D. Fraser
Locality: East Carolina., "Carolina", United States, North America
  • Type collection: Lamarck, J. B. A. 1791. Tabl. Encycl. 1: 191.
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© Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany

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Possible type for Distichlis thalassica var. pectinata Griseb.
Catalog Number: US 865894
Collection: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany
Verification Degree: Original publication and alleged type specimen examined
Preparation: Pressed specimen
Collector(s): G. H. Hieronymus
Locality: Unknown
  • Possible type: Grisebach, A. H. R. 1879. Abh. Königl. Ges. Wiss. Göttingen. 24: 291.
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© Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany

Source: National Museum of Natural History Collections


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Neotype for Uniola spicata Llanos
Catalog Number: US 903846
Collection: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany
Verification Degree: ; Original publication and alleged type specimen examined
Preparation: Pressed specimen
Collector(s): E. D. Merrill
Year Collected: 1914
Locality: Luzon., Luzon, Manila, Philippines, Asia-Tropical
  • Neotype: Llanos, A. Fragm. Pl. Filip. 47.; Veldkamp, J. F. 2002. Blumea. 47 (1): 169.
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© Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany

Source: National Museum of Natural History Collections


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Type fragment for Poa thalassica Kunth
Catalog Number: US 2891486
Collection: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany
Verification Degree: Card file verified by examination of alleged type specimen
Preparation: Pressed specimen
Collector(s): F. W. Humboldt & A. J. A. Bonpland
Locality: Lima prope ad litus oceani, Lima, Peru, South America
  • Type fragment: Kunth, C. S. 1816. Nova Genera Sp. Pl. 1: 157.
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Type fragment for Poa prostrata Kunth
Catalog Number: US 2891494
Collection: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany
Verification Degree: Card file verified by examination of alleged type specimen
Preparation: Pressed specimen
Collector(s): F. W. Humboldt & A. J. A. Bonpland
Locality: Pratis Carpio., Venezuela, South America
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Habitat characteristics

More info for the terms: cover, marsh, peat

Saltgrass is found in a wide range of environments that include salt marshes [1,4,43,55,121,122,123,124], sandy flats [6,132,138,176,187], inland salt marshes [33,43,44,49,55,196], alkaline flats [38,62,64,67,84,179,252], coastal tidal marshes [1,4,26,27,41,49,55], foothills [17], deserts [6,23,62,67,99,152,208,278], grasslands [36,36,38,59,67,68,84,162], salt playas [31,71,110,144,149,159,239,314], and along the banks of streams, rivers, and lakes [34,73,83,94,114,144,199,212].

Saltgrass grows in highly stressful environments where it is frequently subjected to temperature, drought, and salt stress or in tidal salt marshes where its entire aboveground biomass is periodically inundated with sea water [100]. In the Great Basin and warm southern deserts, saltgrass tends to occur in close proximity to salt playas, saline flats with shallow water tables, and near saline seeps. Soils are generally fine textured and subject to occasional flooding and anoxic conditions [237]. Saltgrass plants prefer moist environments, but can withstand considerable drought [161].

Climate: Saltgrass grows in a wide range of precipitation, seasonal rainfall patterns, and temperature zones. It requires a minimum of 80 frost-free days for growth [318]. Saltgrass is found in the extremely arid Death Valley region of California, where annual precipitation is as low as 0.74 inch (19 mm) [6,333] and the 2nd highest air temperature (134 °F (57 °C)) ever occurring worldwide was recorded [132]. Conversely, saltgrass also occurs in Yellowstone National Park, where mean annual precipitation can be as high as 80 inches (2,030 mm) [58]. Saltgrass is found extensively across the northern Great Plains where annual precipitation ranges from 12 inches (310 mm) to 18 inches (460 mm) [115,141,146,154,259,300]. On the mixed-grass prairies of Alberta and Saskatchewan where saltgrass is found, temperatures can dip to –55 °F (–48 °C) in winter [162].

Elevation: Saltgrass grows at a wide range of elevations from –282 feet (–86 m) in Death Valley, California [132], to as high as 9,000 feet (2,700 m) in Colorado [82]. Saltgrass occurs extensively at sea level in tidal salt marshes along the Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf Coast. Elevational ranges for saltgrass are presented below:

Region/State/Province Elevation
Arizona <6,000 feet [163,164]
California –282 to 7,000 feet [132,152,231]
Colorado 3,500 to 9,000 feet [82]
Delaware 27.8 to 34 inches above mean sea level [174]
Montana 2,740 to 4,300 feet [82]
New Mexico <6,500 feet [52,127]
Nevada 1,600 to 6,400 feet [176]
North Dakota 2,000 to 2,600 feet [146]
Utah 3,500 to 7,515 feet [14,242,332]
Wyoming 4,000 to 7,500 feet [82]
Chihuahuan Desert 3,200 to 4,600 feet [229]
Northern Great Plains 1,500 to 3,500 feet [68]
Alberta 1,800 to 3,800 feet [162]
Saskatchewan 1,800 to 3,800 feet [162]

Environmental adaptations: Saltgrass adapts to a broad range of environmental factors across its wide geographic range [100]. At high saline levels, saltgrass plants from high-salinity environments have been observed to grow better than plants taken from low-salinity environments [144]. Saltgrass plants taken from Bodega Bay, California, grew better at sodium chloride concentrations 2 times that of seawater than plants of an inland population taken near Davis, California. Coastal plants accumulated more potassium and less sodium and chloride in their roots than inland plants [100].

Pore water (water filling the spaces between grains of sediment) salinities are higher in low-latitude coastal salt marshes than in high-latitude coastal salt marshes. Pennings and others [247] conducted experiments with New England (Rhode Island and Maine) and southeastern (Alabama and Georgia) saltgrass plants, and found that plants from the Southeast had a higher tolerance to salinity than New England plants. New England saltgrass plants introduced into a southeastern salt marsh had lower photosynthetic rates and shoot masses than plants native to the Southeast.

Soils: Saltgrass is generally found on sandy, saline soils with poor drainage in areas other than inland and tidal salt marshes [6,68,162,176]. Generally saltgrass prefers soils composed of fine-grained sand [71]. Saltgrass grows "vigorously" on moist, saline soils where most other species cannot survive [61]. In these habitats saltgrass forms pure stands with 2,000 to 3,000 stems/m² [44,320,322]. In Death Valley, California, pure saltgrass stands grow on soils composed of 66% to 78% sand, 15% to 23% silt, and 7% to 11% clay [132,138]. In a Connecticut tidal marsh saltgrass grows on 45-inch (115-cm) thick peat soils [65].

Saltgrass is found on soft, medium, and hard peat substrates in salt marshes at Smith Cove, Rhode Island. The organic content and pore water salinity of the 3 zones is presented in the table below [27]:

Peat zone Organic content (% dry mass) Pore water salinity (% mass)
Soft 20.5 22.0
Medium 40.2 18.3
Hard 39.3 16.7

Saltgrass tolerates a wide range of soil salinities and pH levels. Several authors indicate that saltgrass tolerates soil salinity levels ranging from 0.03% to 5.4% with an optimum of approximately 1.5% [144,286,320,322]. However, Brotherson [44] found that where saltgrass was most lush on sites surrounding Utah Lake, Utah, the soil salinity level was only 0.33%. Saltgrass communities in Kansas and Oklahoma grasslands are found on soils with a salt content from 0.05% to 3.93% [320]. Saltgrass commonly grows on soils with a pH level between 6.8 and 9.2 [44]. At Big Alkali Lake, California, saltgrass has been found growing on soils with a pH value between 10.3 and 10.9 [118,132].

General soil factors and mineral nutrients on a Utah Lake site where the average percent cover of saltgrass is 99.07%, are presented below [44]:

Soil factor Mean±s
Sand (%) 34.93±12.03
Silt (%) 41.10±5.70
Clay (%) 23.97±9.45
Organic matter (%) 24.36±3.48
pH 7.73±0.13
Soluble salts (ppm) 3,382.67±497.29
Soil moisture (%) 39.3±2.5
Nitrogen (%) 0.585±0.080
Phosphorus (%) 27.93±1.42
Calcium (ppm) 15,753.33±994.23
Magnesium (ppm) 757.33±33.31
Sodium (ppm) 1,197.33±383.44
Potassium (ppm) 536.00±188.13
Iron (ppm) 62.67±40.03
Manganese (ppm) 14.92±7.57
Zinc (ppm) 4.79±1.67
Copper (ppm) 5.94±1.10

Where saltgrass is found outside of marsh communities, the water tables are generally close to the surface [144,320,321,322]. In the Nebraska sandhills, saltgrass thrives in meadows where the water table is 16 to 36 inches (40-90 cm) below the soil surface [312]. Along the Rio Grande River, New Mexico, saltgrass is found only in areas where the water table was within 4 feet (1.2 m) of the soil surface [50]. In pure stands of saltgrass, surface and subsurface soil moisture levels vary from a high of 35% in April, gradually decreasing to a low of 20% in September on a salt desert playa near Goshen, Utah [144]. The table below describes soil soluble salts and pH levels at 2 depths within a saltgrass dominant stand on the Oakville Prairie, North Dakota. The average (x±s) soil moisture level for 2 dates (15 July and 21 August) at Oakville Prairie ranged from 61±9 to 49±9 [259].


Soluble salts (ohms³)


0-10 cm 47±17 7.4
40-50 cm 52±14 7.7

Saltgrass is dominant in saline meadows surrounding Goshen Bay in Utah County, Utah. Soil constituents of the saline meadows are presented below [284]:

Soil moisture (%) 29.5
Organic matter (%) 9.1
pH (mean) 8.08
Conductivity (mS/cm) 7,660.0
Soluble salts (mg/l) 4,902.0
Calcium (mg/l) 3,850.0
Magnesium (mg/l) 1,380.0
Sodium (mg/l) 2,029.0
Potassium (mg/l) 758.0
Copper (mg/l) 2.3
Iron (mg/l) 11.6
Manganese (mg/l) 13.2
Zinc (mg/l) 2.9
Total nitrogen (mg/l) 2,490.0
Phosphorus (mg/l) 8.5

Tidal marsh characteristics: Saltgrass grows in tidal marsh water with saline contents of 1.2% to 3.9%, but grows best when the salinity content is 1.18% to 1.71% [1]. Saltgrass generally occurs in salt marshes along the Atlantic coast where the water level is 2 inches (5 cm) above to 6 inches (15 cm) below the marsh surface. Typical surface and subsurface water salinity levels in saltgrass populations range from 0 to 33 g/L NaCl, but can be as high as 40 g/L [120]. Hacker and Gaines [140] and Lefor and others [195] describe saltgrass as occurring in New England salt marshes within the upper middle and lower middle intertidal zone. Niering and Warren [234] and Woodhouse [343] describe saltgrass as the most ubiquitous species on the high marsh in New England salt marshes. In California tidal marshes, saltgrass is indicative of the high marsh zone [313]. A study of saltgrass stands in a diked marsh and a tidal marsh at San Francisco Bay, California, found that saltgrass plants in the tidal marsh were larger and had greater mean shoot biomass than plants in the diked marsh. St. Omer [296] asserted that higher soil moisture and nitrogen levels in the tidal marsh were a partial reason that saltgrass plants had greater mass.

Storm-induced wrack deposition is common in tidal marsh communities on the East Coast. In a study of saltgrass plants in a Virginia tidal marsh, Tolley and Christian [311] found saltgrass communities recovered from severe wrack deposition in 1 growing season.

Saltgrass is very flood tolerant [250,280]. In tidal marsh communities, it survives for at least 30 days while completely submerged [3].


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Key Plant Community Associations

More info for the terms: association, cactus, constancy, cover, density, frequency, marsh, natural, presence, shrub, swamp

Saltgrass occurs in a wide range of habitat types and plant communities. In
northeastern tidal salt marshes, saltgrass is commonly associated with saltmeadow
cordgrass (Spartina patens), smooth cordgrass (S. alterniflora),
and saltmeadow rush (Juncus gerardi) [15,26,27,28,69,87]. In southeastern tidal
marshes, saltgrass is frequently found with glasswort (Salicornia spp.),
sawgrass (Cladium jamaicense), black rush (Juncus
roemerianus), and cordgrass (Spartina spp.) [98,120,166,295]. In western riparian
areas saltgrass is a common understory species of willow (Salix spp.) [50]. In deserts of the Southwest, saltgrass occurs with iodinebush (Allenrolfea occidentalis),
saltcedar (Tamarix ramosissima),
saltbush (Atriplex spp.), sagebrush (Artemisia spp.), and black
greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus) [17,88,110,244]. In grasslands, saltgrass grows
with alkali sacaton (Sporobolus airoides),
brome (Bromus spp.), green needlegrass (Nassella viridula), western
wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii), Nuttall's alkaligrass (Puccinellia
nuttalliana), and blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) [18,51,68,84,202].
Descriptions of saltgrass communities across North America follow.

North-central: Saltgrass occurs in coniferous,
deciduous, and mixed forest, grassland, lake, marsh, and riparian
Coniferous forest communities: Saltgrass is found on alkaline flats in
western North Dakota. The flats are surrounded by groves of limber pine (Pinus flexilis),
interior ponderosa pine (P. ponderosa var. scopulorum), Rocky
Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum), common juniper (J.
communis), creeping juniper (J. horizontalis), and skunkbush sumac (Rhus
trilobata) [252].
Deciduous and mixed vegetation communities: Saltgrass and alkali
sacaton are dominant grasses in the eastern cottonwood (Populus
deltoides)-saltcedar-willow community found in
the Arkansas River floodplain of the Great Plains [128]
Grassland communities: Saltgrass is a minor species (2% and 1.5%
species composition) in dry valley and wet meadow habitat types, an important
species (8.6% species composition) in dry meadow habitat types, and a dominant species (45.8%
composition) in
saltgrass habitat types in the sandhills of Nebraska [115].
Saltgrass-foxtail barley-bluegrass (Hordeum jubatum-Poa spp.)
and saltgrass-foxtail barley communities are found on the 800-acre (325-ha)
Oakville Prairie, North Dakota [142]. Hanson and Whitman [146] list saltgrass
occurring with Nuttall's alkaligrass, western wheatgrass,
blue grama, and green needlegrass
in the grasslands of western North Dakota. Redmann [259] describes
saltgrass as a dominant species (88% cover) on wet and strongly saline soils
and a "subdominate" in foxtail barley stands on North Dakota prairies.
Saltgrass is a primary species on slightly brackish, moderately brackish,
brackish, and subsaline soils throughout the prairie potholes region of North
Dakota [154,300]. Saltgrass occurs in the little
bluestem-sideoats grama (Schizachyrium scoparium-Bouteloua
curtipendula) communities on chalkflat mixed prairies in Kansas [191].

Lake, marsh, and riparian communities: Saltgrass is
a dominant species in wet interdune areas of the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Nebraska.
Common associates include Baltic rush (Juncus balticus), Olney
threesquare (Scirpus americanus), hardstem bulrush (S. acutus),
clustered field sedge (Carex praegracilis), spikerush (Eleocharis
spp.), and common cattail (Typha latifolia) [34].
Northeast: Salt marsh communities
Saltgrass and saltgrass-saltmeadow cordgrass
communities are found in the Barn Island Wildlife Management Area, Baker's Cove,
and the Connecticut River estuary,
Connecticut [15,69] and Smith Cove [26,27], Rumstick Cove
[28], and Succotash salt marsh [87], Rhode
Northwest: Saltgrass occurs in lakeshore,
riparian, salt marsh, shrub-, and grassland communities.

Lakeshore and riparian communities: Saltgrass has an occurrence of 73%
along a 52-mile (83-km) stretch of the Snake River from the Swan Falls Dam to
the Idaho-Oregon border [83]. Saltgrass generally occurs in pure
stands with scattered patches of Nuttall's alkaligrass throughout riparian and
wetland sites in Montana [145].
Salt marsh communities: Virginia glasswort (Salicornia
virginica)-saltgrass communities are found on Sidney Island, British Columbia
[49], and Whidbey Island, Washington [196].
Shrub- and grassland communities: Saltgrass occurs in black
greasewood community types in central Montana. Basin big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata
var. tridentata), western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum
smithii), bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata),
blue grama, and Sandberg bluegrass (Poa secunda) are
also common [18]. Saltgrass is a dominant species, with
overall frequency of 36%, on saline meadows in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and
Manitoba. Saltgrass occurrence is as high as 44% in southern Saskatchewan and as
low as 22% in southern Alberta [38]. Saltgrass is found on
the mixed prairies green needlegrass-western wheatgrass-grama (Bouteloua
spp.) association of the Canadian prairie provinces [51]. Saltgrass is a dominant
species on moist, highly saline areas on
shortgrass prairies of southern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan [59,84].
Saltgrass is a dominant species on saline sites with poor drainage in
northern Great Plains and Canadian prairie province salt marshes and salt
meadows. Saltgrass is dominant in the Nuttall's
alkaligrass-saltgrass, saltgrass, and the
saltgrass-wheatgrass communities [68,84,202]. A
vegetation analysis of range and cultivated grasslands conducted in 1991 and
1992 in southern Alberta found that saltgrass coverage ranged between 19.1% and
31%, respectively [153]. The saltgrass-black greasewood and saltgrass-basin wildrye
(Leymus cinereus) associations of the Columbia Plateau, Washington,
are noted for the alkaline soils [207]. On the Palouse
Prairie of Idaho and Washington, saltgrass-basin wildrye communities are found
on fine-textured saline soils [72].
Southeast: Saltgrass occurs in deciduous,
mixed forest, and salt marsh communities.

Deciduous and mixed forest communities: Saltgrass is a common
understory species of nonnative beach sheoak (Casuarina equisetifolia)
on alkaline soils throughout Florida [230].
Salt marsh communities: In a representative sample of the
U.S. Gulf of Mexico,
saltgrass is listed as a dominant species in coastal marshes [135]. Saltgrass is found in North Carolina coastal
salt marshes dominated by cordgrass, rush (Juncus spp.), and
glasswort species [1]. Saltgrass is dominant and widespread in Louisiana coastal salt marshes and a
minor species in intermediate and freshwater marshes. Average saltgrass
species composition in Louisiana coastal saline, brackish, intermediate, and freshwater
marshes is 14.27%, 13.32%, 0.36%, and 0.13%, respectively [55].
Saltgrass is dominant on salt pan at the Cumberland Island National
Seashore, Georgia [75]. Saltgrass, black rush, big cordgrass
(Spartina cynosuroides), and sawgrass are dominant plants in tidal
marshes along the coast of Mississippi [98]. Saltgrass, saltmeadow cordgrass,
and smooth cordgrass are dominant
species throughout the Chenier Plain of the Gulf of Mexico, which extends from
Vermillion Bay, Louisiana, to East Bay, Texas [120].
Saltgrass and black rush are dominant in salt marshes in the Big Cypress Swamp,
Florida [166]. Saltgrass and
saltmeadow cordgrass are dominant species on swales located on the barrier
island of Hog Island, Virginia [295]
Southwest: Saltgrass occurs in pinyon-juniper
woodland, deciduous and mixed-forest, desert shrub, riparian, lakeshore,
salt marsh, and grassland communities.
Woodland communities: A survey in a mature pinyon
pine-Utah juniper (Pinus edulis-Juniperus osteosperma)
community in Uintah County, Utah, found saltgrass in concentrations of 42 plants per 50 m²
in 1974 and 63 plants per 50 m² in 1984 [12]. Saltgrass occurs with a
low constancy (0.2%) in pinyon-juniper woodlands of the Great Basin [316].

Desert shrubland communities: Saltgrass is a common associate in the
saltbush-greasewood communities of the Chihuahuan, Sonoran, Mojave, and Great
Basin deserts of the United States [244]. Saltgrass is found
in almost pure stands on intermittently flooded grassland playas and
intermittent and ephemeral streams of the Chihuahuan Desert [260]. Saltgrass forms extensive populations in Death
Valley, California [6]. Saltgrass is common in
the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts in creosotebush (Larrea tridentata)
communities. Other common grasses in creosotebush communities where saltgrass
occurs are black grama (Bouteloua eriopoda), low woolygrass (Dasycohloa
pulchella), and bush muhly (Muhlenbergia porteri) [151,229].
Saltgrass, Olney threesquare, Cooper's rush (Juncus cooperi),
boraxweed (Nitrophila occidentalis), yerba mansa (Anemopsis
californica), Fremont cottonwood (Populus
fremontii), Goodding's willow (S. gooddingii),
blue paloverde (Cercidium floridium), yellow paloverde (C.
microphyllum), and saguaro (Carnegia gigantea) are common
around desert springs in Death Valley, California [241] and the Sonoran Desert [258].
In the Tehachapi Mountains of California,
saltgrass and iodinebush are dominant species on
alkali soils [17].
Saltgrass is a dominant species on natural dunes 3 to 6 feet (1-2 m) high
formed where artesian springs emerge from the playa surface at Owens Lake,
California. At the center of the mounds saltgrass has a cover value of 70%,
decreasing to 30% at playa margins [71].
Rubber rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus) (10.03% cover) and saltgrass
(20.74% cover) are dominant species in Owens Valley, California [138].
By Mono Lake, California, saltgrass is commonly associated with black
greasewood [88,110]. Along the Mojave River
in Afton Canyon, California, saltgrass and saltcedar
codominate a primarily dry, meanderless river segment [97].
Other dominant species in the Afton Canyon area include screwbean mesquite
(Prosopis pubescens), California palm (Washingtonia filifera),
honey mesquite (P. glandulosa), Olney threesquare,
cattail (Typha spp.), and Virginia glasswort [203]. Saltgrass is associated with big saltbrush (Atriplex
lentiformis) at Point Mugu Lagoon and in Coachella Valley,
California [245]. Saltgrass is a dominant species in small, scattered, poorly drained
saline meadows in the Gila Valley, Arizona, Coachella Valley, California, and the Escalante Valley,
Utah [278,279].
Saltgrass is found throughout the big basin sagebrush (Artemisia
tridentata spp. tridentata) steppe in the Great Basin of the
intermountain West [236]. Saltgrass is an important species in the
saltbush-black greasewood community type in Utah [14]. In the lowland salt deserts of Nevada,
characteristically dominant species include saltgrass, black greasewood,
bluejoint reedgrass (Calamagrostis canadensis), fourwing saltbush (A. canescens),
and basin wildrye [315]. On the Eagle Valley playa, Nevada, saltgrass,
iodinebush, big saltbrush,
and black greasewood dominate fine-textured sand mounds [31].
On heavily grazed land in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona,
saltgrass is a dominant ground cover species [23]. Saltgrass is widespread
throughout the White Sands National Monument, New Mexico [99]. The White Valley
in western Utah is described as a northern desert shrub biome. Within the White
Valley is a system of springs bordered by dense stands of sandbar willow (Salix exigua),
Baltic rush, Olney threesquare, and saltgrass [105]. Saltgrass (38% frequency)
is also a common associate in the black greasewood community type in semidesert
areas of southern Colorado [67,129].
Woodland, riparian, and lakeshore communities: Saltgrass and alkali sacaton
are the most common grasses in stands of screwbean mesquite and Fremont
cottonwood-Goodding willow forests along the Rio Grande River, New Mexico [50].
Saltgrass is an important associated species of the sand-verbena-silver burr
ragweed (Abronia spp.-Ambrosia chamissonis) community at the mouth
of the Ventura River, California. Other important associated species include
beach suncup (Camissonia cheiranthifolia ssp. suffruiticosa),
California croton (Croton californicus), seaside buckwheat (Eriogonum
latifolium), and chamisso bush lupine (Lupinus chamissonis) [73].
Boulder Creek in eastern Colorado is described as bottomland vegetation
dominated by saltgrass, smooth brome (Bromus inermis), and
intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium) [114]. Saltgrass is the most common species on the Arkansas
River (100% presence and 52.5% average frequency) and South Platte River (100%
presence and 73.1% average frequency) floodplains in eastern Colorado [199].
Lonard and Judd [201] describe saltgrass as occurring at an
average frequency of 11.1% and 0.04% cover at the mouth of the Rio Grande River.
Saltgrass and alkali sacaton are the 2 most common grasses found in Rio Grande
River meadows [94,212]. Saltgrass is the dominant grass on the
Green River floodplain in the Uintah Mountains, Utah. Pammel [240]
describes saltgrass as so pervasive on the alkaline soils of the Green
River floodplain that it
excludes other vegetation. Saltgrass has 50%
constancy and 25.0% average frequency on the salt playas of Goshen
Bay, Utah [286].
Salt marsh communities: Saltgrass is a
dominant emergent species at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Utah [40].
An analysis of aquatic and semiaquatic vegetation surrounding Utah Lake, Utah,
found saltgrass was the most important and widespread species of 483
identified. Saltgrass, foxtail barley, and alkali
sacaton tend to dominate the higher dry areas. Of 5 vegetative zones at
Utah Lake, average percent cover of saltgrass ranged from 18.25% to 99.07%
[43,44]. Saltgrass is a dominant species in
spring-fed salt marshes at Fish Springs, Utah. Saltgrass has a frequency ranging
from 45% to 100% and a density of 4.5 to 58.9 plants/foot² [33].
Grassland communities: Saltgrass
occurs in isolated clumps within California annual
grasslands dominated by oat (Avena spp.),
brome, barley (Hordeum spp.), and sixweeks grass (Vulpia spp.) [16]. Saltgrass is a dominant species on the coastal terrace grassland prairies
of California [304]. Saltgrass meadows occupy over 500,000 acres (200,000 ha) of
the central Great Plains of Colorado and Wyoming. In a study of saltgrass
meadows and surrounding vegetation at the Central Plains Experimental Range,
Colorado, species composition averaged across transects found the following
magnitude of ground cover distribution over the 1979 to 1983 seasons: blue grama
> alkali sacaton > saltgrass > western
wheatgrass [36]. Saltgrass (82% frequency) and alkali
sacaton (58% frequency) are the 2 most important species of the dry meadow type
within shortgrass prairies of eastern Colorado and Wyoming. A study of
shortgrass prairie vegetation in 8 border counties of Colorado, New Mexico,
Oklahoma, and Texas found that while saltgrass had limited distribution, it was
dominant in several vegetation types [159]. In Colorado, saltgrass is frequently associated with
dense stands of Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) [85,297].
Saltgrass is recognized as a dominant species in the following vegetation
classifications and locations:
United States


Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument sideoats grama grassland [23]

Gila Valley mesquite woodland [278]


Coachella Valley alkali flats [278]

Death Valley alkali flats [6]

Tehachapi Mountains [17]

Owens Lake desert playa [71]

Afton Canyon [97]

San Francisco Bay salt marsh [296]

Coastal grasslands [304]

Point Reyes National Seashore tidal marsh [313]

Owens Valley [138]


Central Plains Experimental Range [36]

Dry meadows of the shortgrass prairies [67]

Upland areas of the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge [129]


Barn Island Wildlife Management Area tidal marshes [15]

Baker's Cove tidal marsh [65]

Connecticut River estuary [69]


Big Cypress Swamp [166]

Cumberland Island National Seashore tidal marshes [75]


Chilly Slough Wetland Conservation Area [349]

Palouse prairie alkali flats [72]


Quivira National Wildlife Refuge salt marsh [302]


Coastal salt marshes [55,220]

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge tidal marsh [96]

Lower Pearl River basin [336]


Tidal marshes [98]

St. Louis Bay Estuary tidal marsh [125]


Coastal salt marshes: [1]


Oakville Prairie [142]

Western grasslands [146]

Prairie potholes [300]


Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Sandhills saltgrass types [115]

Saline areas surrounding the city limits of Lincoln [323]


Hog Island tidal marsh [342]


Eagle Valley playa [31]


Smith Cove tidal marsh [26,27,86]

Rumstick Cove tidal marsh [28,41]

Succotash salt marsh [87]


Stink and Bitter Lake [321]


Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge [169]


Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge [40]

Escalante Valley [279]

Utah Lake [43]

Spring-fed salt marshes [33]

Green River flood plain [240]

Goshen Bay [284,286]


Hog Island [295]

Whidbey Island salt marshes [196]

Columbia Plateau alkaline grasslands [207]

Palouse prairie alkali flats [72]


Dry meadows of the shortgrass prairies [67]

United States Regions

Chihuahuan Desert [260]

Great Basin Desert [244]

Gulf Coast salt marshes: [4,121,135]

Mojave Desert [244]

Northern Great Plains: Poorly drained saline sites [68]

Sonoran Desert [244]

Canadian Provinces


Saline areas of the shortgrass prairies [38,59]

Wood Buffalo National Park [273]


Sidney Island [49]


Saline meadows [38]


Wood Buffalo National Park [273]


Saline areas of the shortgrass prairies [38,59,84]

Canadian Regions

Prairie province salt marshes and salt meadows [202]


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Habitat: Rangeland Cover Types

More info on this topic.

This species is known to occur in association with the following Rangeland Cover Types (as classified by the Society for Range Management, SRM):

More info for the terms: cover, fresh, marsh, shrub


101 Bluebunch wheatgrass

107 Western juniper/big sagebrush/bluebunch wheatgrass

109 Ponderosa pine shrubland

110 Ponderosa pine-grassland

204 North coastal shrub

205 Coastal sage shrub

206 Chamise chaparral

207 Scrub oak mixed chaparral

210 Bitterbrush

211 Creosote bush scrub

212 Blackbush

216 Montane meadows

217 Wetlands

301 Bluebunch wheatgrass-blue grama

303 Bluebunch wheatgrass-western wheatgrass

310 Needle-and-thread-blue grama

313 Tufted hairgrass-sedge

314 Big sagebrush-bluebunch wheatgrass

401 Basin big sagebrush

402 Mountain big sagebrush

403 Wyoming big sagebrush

406 Low sagebrush

408 Other sagebrush types

412 Juniper-pinyon woodland

414 Salt desert shrub

422 Riparian

501 Saltbush-greasewood

502 Grama-galleta

503 Arizona chaparral

504 Juniper-pinyon pine woodland

505 Grama-tobosa shrub

506 Creosotebush-bursage

507 Palo verde-cactus

508 Creosotebush-tarbush

601 Bluestem prairie

602 Bluestem-prairie sandreed

603 Prairie sandreed-needlegrass

604 Bluestem-grama prairie

605 Sandsage prairie

606 Wheatgrass-bluestem-needlegrass

607 Wheatgrass-needlegrass

608 Wheatgrass-grama-needlegrass

609 Wheatgrass-grama

610 Wheatgrass

611 Blue grama-buffalo grass

612 Sagebrush-grass

615 Wheatgrass-saltgrass-grama

701 Alkali sacaton-tobosagrass

702 Black grama-alkali sacaton

703 Black grama-sideoats grama

704 Blue grama-western wheatgrass

705 Blue grama-galleta

706 Blue grama-sideoats grama

707 Blue grama-sideoats grama-black grama

708 Bluestem-dropseed

709 Bluestem-grama

710 Bluestem prairie

711 Bluestem-sacahuista prairie

712 Galleta-alkali sacaton

714 Grama-bluestem

718 Mesquite-grama

720 Sand bluestem-little bluestem (dunes)

721 Sand bluestem-little bluestem (plains)

722 Sand sagebrush-mixed prairie

723 Sea oats

726 Cordgrass

729 Mesquite

805 Riparian

806 Gulf Coast salt marsh

807 Gulf Coast fresh marsh

818 Florida salt marsh

819 Freshwater marsh and ponds

820 Everglades flatwoods

822 Slough


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Habitat: Cover Types

More info on this topic.

This species is known to occur in association with the following cover types (as classified by the Society of American Foresters):

More info for the term: cover


46 Eastern redcedar

63 Cottonwood

68 Mesquite

217 Aspen

220 Rocky Mountain juniper

221 Red alder

222 Black cottonwood-willow

235 Cottonwood-willow

237 Interior ponderosa pine

238 Western juniper

239 Pinyon-juniper

242 Mesquite

245 Pacific ponderosa pine


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More info for the term: shrub

Kuchler [184]
K010 Ponderosa shrub forest
K011 Western ponderosa forest
K016 Eastern ponderosa forest
K017 Black Hills pine forest
K023 Juniper-pinyon woodland
K024 Juniper steppe woodland
K025 Alder-ash forest
K027 Mesquite bosques
K038 Great Basin sagebrush
K039 Blackbrush
K040 Saltbush-greasewood
K041 Creosote bush
K042 Creosote bush-bur sage
K043 Paloverde-cactus shrub
K044 Creosote bush-tarbush
K046 Desert: vegetation largely lacking
K049 Tule marshes
K050 Fescue-wheatgrass
K051 Wheatgrass-bluegrass
K053 Grama-galleta steppe
K054 Grama-tobosa prairie
K055 Sagebrush steppe
K056 Wheatgrass-needlegrass shrubsteppe
K057 Galleta-threeawn shrubsteppe
K058 Grama-tobosa shrubsteppe
K059 Trans-Pecos shrub savanna
K063 Foothills prairie
K064 Grama-needlegrass-wheatgrass
K065 Grama-buffalo grass
K066 Wheatgrass-needlegrass
K067 Wheatgrass-bluestem-needlegrass
K068 Wheatgrass-grama-buffalo grass
K069 Bluestem-grama prairie
K070 Sandsage-bluestem prairie
K072 Sea oats prairie
K073 Northern cordgrass prairie
K074 Bluestem prairie
K075 Nebraska Sandhills prairie
K077 Bluestem-sacahuista prairie
K078 Southern cordgrass prairie
K080 Marl everglades
K090 Live oak-sea oats
K092 Everglades
K098 Northern floodplain forest


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Habitat: Ecosystem

More info on this topic.

This species is known to occur in the following ecosystem types (as named by the U.S. Forest Service in their Forest and Range Ecosystem [FRES] Type classification):


FRES16 Oak-gum-cypress

FRES17 Elm-ash-cottonwood

FRES21 Ponderosa pine

FRES28 Western hardwoods

FRES29 Sagebrush

FRES30 Desert shrub

FRES33 Southwestern shrubsteppe

FRES34 Chaparral-mountain shrub

FRES35 Pinyon-juniper

FRES36 Mountain grasslands

FRES37 Mountain meadows

FRES38 Plains grasslands

FRES39 Prairie

FRES40 Desert grasslands

FRES41 Wet grasslands


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Depth range based on 8 specimens in 1 taxon.

Environmental ranges
  Depth range (m): 1 - 1
Note: this information has not been validated. Check this *note*. Your feedback is most welcome.


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Adaptation: Saltgrass is found in saline areas, brackish marshes, and in salt flats along the coasts of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and the along the coast of South America. It inhabits upper/high marsh (irregularly flooded) areas, in which the water levels vary between 2 inches above the soil surface and 6 inches below the soil surface. It is also commonly present in the dry West, where it is one of the most drought-tolerant species. Saltgrass is located in both organic alkaline and in saline soils. It is found in planting zones 7,8,9,and 10. Distichlis spicata can be found in flower from June to October. The inflorescence is yellowish in color, turning straw brown as it dries.

General: It may be propagated by seeds, which are produced many times in a growing season and are dispersed by wind and water. It is easier and more often propagated by its extensively creeping underground rhizomes.

Rhizomes: Saltgrass can be established by seeds or by rhizome cuttings. If using rhizome cuttings, they must not dry out. They may be stored up to 28 days. It is recommended that the rhizomes be stored in a temperature range of 35-50° F and in 60-75% relative humidity. Rhizomes are can be planted any time of the year at a depth of 1-2 inches. However, rhizomes sprout better at 77-86° F.

Seeds: Saltgrass seeds demand more than rhizomes to sprout. The seeds need moist soil, low alkalinity and high temperatures. Although many seeds are produced, only a small percentage of those seeds may germinate naturally.

Public Domain

USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center & the Louisiana State Office

Source: USDA NRCS PLANTS Database


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General Ecology

Fire Management Considerations

More info for the terms: cover, fire tolerant, frequency, fuel, litter, marsh

Fuel load: Saltgrass fuel loadings vary considerably in Florida salt marshes and mangrove swamps. Generally, the fuel bed depth in saltgrass communities is only 1 to 2 feet (0.3-0.6 m) [233].

Invasive species: If fire is chosen as a management tool for saltgrass, managers should recognize potential negative effects on associated or surrounding vegetation. For instance, saltgrass is a dominant species in Afton Canyon located in the lower Mojave River drainage of the western Mojave Desert, California. In the past several decades the area has been infested by saltcedar, which is highly fire tolerant and may expand after disturbances such as fire and severely reduce native plant coverage [203]. In Colorado, saltgrass is commonly associated with dense stands of Canada thistle. Managers should be careful using fire as a management tool where Canada thistle exists, because it may expand after disturbances such as fire and severely reduce native plant coverage [24,215,238,272].

Salt marshes: Fire in salt marshes has produced an increase, decrease, and no change in the occurrence and frequency of saltgrass. Therefore, use of fire as a management tool for saltgrass in salt marshes should be approached with caution. Research by Smith and Kadlec [287,288,289,290,291,292,294] strongly suggests draining, burning, and then reflooding a marsh has a detrimental affect on saltgrass. Flores [108] found that annual burning in salt marshes where saltgrass was dominant led to a significant (p<0.05) decrease in litter. Hence, annual burning causes a considerable decrease in litter and should be considered before burning marshes on an annual basis if you wish to maintain litter levels.

Wildlife: Saltgrass provides important cover and to a lesser extent a source of food for waterfowl species in southeastern and Gulf Coast salt marshes (see Importance to Livestock and Wildlife). Thus, burning salt marshes where saltgrass occurs may be detrimental to waterfowl for at least the short term.


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Broad-scale Impacts of Plant Response to Fire

More info for the terms: backfire, cover, density, fire exclusion, fire frequency, frequency, fuel, headfire, marsh, prescribed fire, shrub

The effects of burning on a saltgrass community were studied at the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area, an 8,600-acre
(3,500-ha) brackish marsh in the Sacramento River Delta. Three 33 ×
33-foot (10 × 10 m) plots were assigned as control, mowed
(see Mowing),
and burned sites in September 1992. Burning was done during the day when air temperatures were
from 77 to 95 °F (25-35 °C). Temperatures at the soil surface during
the fire varied greatly, ranging from 138 to 300 °F (59-149 °C).
Most aboveground vegetation was removed by the fire. In August 1993 the percent cover of
saltgrass in the burned area was significantly lower than on
the control plot (~62.5% vs. 100%, respectively; p<0.05). While the percent cover of saltgrass was less on burned
sites, stem density (mean± s x)
was greater on burned plots (1,996.8/m ±
680.8) than on control plots (1,722.1/m ± 370.1) [77].

The effects of fire on a saltgrass-saltmeadow cordgrass dominated marsh were tested at
Rockefeller State Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Louisiana. Plots measuring 300
× 300 feet (100 × 100 m) were established in impounded brackish and intermediate marshes and in unimpounded
brackish and saline marsh areas. Plots were burned on 9 to 11 December, 13 December, 1995, and 9 January 1996. The
fires were either head or backfires, and were conducted with approximately 2 inches (5
cm) of water over the marsh surface. Total above- and
belowground saltgrass vegetation was sampled (g/m² ± s
x) on burned impounded, burned unimpounded, unburned impounded, and unburned
unimpounded sites in 1996, 1997, and 1998. Except for burned impounded sites in 1996 and
burned unimpounded sites in 1998,
saltgrass mean above- and belowground biomass increased in burned areas [121]:
Treatments1996 (postfire month 7)1997 (postfire month 19)1998 (postfire month 31)
Burned impounded36 ± 72124 ± 270100 ± 223
Burned unimpounded185 ± 212252 ± 342168 ± 260
Unburned impounded45 ± 9034 ± 5628 ± 39
Unburned unimpounded104 ± 106153 ± 211182 ± 150

While the mean above- and belowground biomass generally increased on burned
plots, by 1998 saltgrass cover decreased on
burned plots compared to unburned plots. The researchers assert that this was due largely
because percent cover of saltmeadow cordgrass increased substantially in the same plots.
Mean saltgrass percent cover ( ± s
x) was [122]:
Burned13.3 ± 6.414.0 ± 18.43.8 ± 15.6
Unburned9.0 ± 16.67.5 ± 18.87.8 ± 12.0

In the 800-acre (325-ha) tallgrass Oakville Prairie, North Dakota, 33 foot
× 33 foot (10 × 10 m) plots

were burned under prescription on 8 May 1966. The controlled fires occurred in
both lowland and upland sections of the prairie. About 3 months later, saltgrass's aboveground biomass and caloric content
were measured.
Biomass and caloric content were greater on burned sites than on unburned sites
Study plotsAboveground biomass (g/m²) Caloric content (cal/m²)
Unburned lowland76.8355,890
Burned lowland115.2518,650
Unburned upland2.19,387
Burned upland2.310,276

A man-made dike creating a salt marsh impoundment at Merritt Island National
Wildlife Refuge, Florida, was breached in 1972 and burned under prescription 3 times between 1972
and 1979. The forced headfire in 1972 occurred before the marsh was dewatered
during the day. The 1975 backfire occurred at night. The 1979 fire was conducted in
June during the day and was a forced headfire. Saltgrass significantly (p<0.05)
increased following dewatering and the 3 prescribed fires. Percent cover and
frequency in 1973 were 13% and 14%, respectively,
and increased to 42% and 83% in 1980 [194].
At the Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area
(OBWMA) adjacent to the Great Salt Lake, Utah, a prescribed fire was administered on 2
September 1981. The burned area totaled 64 acres (26 ha) and was 30% saltgrass.
All aboveground vegetation was removed by the fire. The fire occurred in a salt
marsh that had been drained during July and August 1981. At the time of the
fire, the wind speed was 10.3 miles per hour (16.6 km/hour), the dew point was
41 °F (5 °C), and the maximum temperature was 83 °F (28.5 °C). Protein was the
only compound to significantly (p=0.014) increase in saltgrass following fire.
There was no significant (p<0.05) decrease in any measured saltgrass chemical
compounds following fire. Nutritional content (%
dry weight, x±s) of saltgrass was
determined in April 1981 (prefire) and April 1982
(postfire) and is presented in the table below [289]:
Chemical compoundApril 1981April 1982
Plant cell wall75.85%±2.69%74.18%±7.03%
Acid insoluble ash1.60%±0.56%1.78%±0.80%

The OBWMA fire had no significant (p<0.05) effect on saltgrass's seed bank [287]. While the seed bank was not affected, Smith and Kadlec [291] found that burning
drained saltgrass stands and then
subsequently reflooding them caused a significant (p<0.001) decline of saltgrass. The fire occurred on 2 September 1981, and reflooding of the marsh
occurred 1 week later. The percent occurrence of saltgrass prior to the
fire was 59%. When measurements were taken in April 1982,
the percent occurrence of saltgrass was reduced to 17%.
The authors noted that due to the extremely dense nature of saltgrass
stands (>2,000 shoots/m²), they did not estimate standing biomass prior to or after
the fire. In areas where saltgrass stands were not burned and reflooded, no
visible decline in standing biomass occurred. The authors of the study suggest
that fire destroyed old saltgrass shoots protruding above the water surface
which had allowed for the transportation of oxygen to the roots and rhizomes of
saltgrass plants [294].
During the OBWMA fire, temperature measures
were taken to gauge heat penetration into the soil. Heat penetration sufficient
to kill plant tissue (140 °F (60 °C)) reached to a depth of 0.61 inch
(1.56 cm) in the soil of saltgrass dominated stands [290]:
Temperature (°>C)Heat
penetration into soil
(cm, x±s)

Prior to and after the OBWMA fire, 20 soil cores
measuring 2 × 5.98 inches (5.0 × 15.2 cm) were taken at 4 soil depths in a
saltgrass-dominated stand to assess the affects of fire on living roots and
rhizomes. The number of saltgrass living roots and rhizomes was not significantly (p>0.20) different
in the upper 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) before or after the fire. However, the number
of living roots and rhizomes was significantly (p<0.05)
less in deeper layers after fire than before fire. Since lethal heat penetration into the
soil at the 3 deepest soil measurements was not common, mortality of roots and
rhizomes was not attributable to fire. More likely, the mortality of roots and
rhizomes was due to the draining of the marsh, which decreased soil
moisture and increased salinities [290]:

# of living roots and rhizomes
at 4 soil depths

0-3.8 cm3.8-7.6 cm7.6-11.4 cm11.4-15.2 cm

In 1956 a fire occurred at Willis Palms, California, in a California palm oasis
(Washingtonia filifera). After the fire,
saltgrass was the 1st understory species to established [327].
On 1 September 1988, 130 × 200-foot (40 × 60 m) blocks of purple needlegrass (Nassella
pulchra)- dominated prairie on the Jepson Prairie Preserve, California, were
burned under prescription. From March through
May 1989, saltgrass percent frequency was not significantly (p<0.05) different on burned and
unburned plots [189].
The National Park Service initiated a fire study in Everglades National Park
in February 1973. Saltgrass, black rush, and fimbry (Fimbristylis spp.)
dominated the study area. Other species such as
cordgrass, sawgrass (Cladium jamaicensis), cattail, and spikerush (Eleocharis
spp.) were occasionally present and dominated some brackish-water sites.
Saltgrass thrived on the burned site and invaded open
areas and patches of seapurslane (Sesuvium spp.) [328].
On 15 April 1981 a prescribed fire was conducted on an upland black
greasewood-saltgrass site within the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
(MNWR) in southeastern Oregon. The site was on Pelican Island in Malheur
Lake. The depth to free water was never
greater than 11 inches (28 cm). The MNWR is characterized by a
semiarid climate and moderate to cold temperatures. The fuels, weather, and fire
behavior are presented below [352]:
Mean preburn fire fuel load (g/m²)968 (722-1,470)*
Prefire shrub cover (%)12.5
Fuel moisture (%)7.0
Temperature (Cº)20-22
Relative humidity (%)26-33
Wind speed (km/hr)13-23
Headfire intensity (KW/minute)13,411-27,306
Fine fuels reduction (%)94

*range in parenthesis

The fire took place on approximately 5 acres (2 ha) that had been excluded
from cultural use or burning for at least 3 years. One year after the fire the
standing biomass of saltgrass was 550±125 (g/m² ± s x),
which was significantly (p<0.05) greater than the prefire value of 398±74. The
researcher also planned on taking measurements at postfire year 2,
but rising lake levels flooded the study site [352].
Annual and 3-year burn rotations were studied in 2 salt marsh communities in
Maryland. In general, annual burns favored saltgrass more than less frequent
burning. Saltgrass cover was significantly greater on annual burn sites than on
3-year burn sites (p=0.0165) and control 1 sites (p=0.0364), but there was no
significant difference with control 2 sites (p=0.2114). Control 1 sites were
areas subjected to a 10-year burn rotation, and control 2 sites were fire exclusion areas. Live biomass of saltgrass was significantly greater on
annual burn sites than on 3-year (p=0.0066), control 1 (p=0.0320), and control 2
(p=0.0177) sites. Stem density of saltgrass was significantly greater on
annual burn sites than on 3-year (p=0.0016), control 1 (p=0.0017), and control 2
(p=0.0005) sites. Average stem density for saltgrass was 2,000/m².
Annual and 3-year burn rotations did not
significantly (p=0.3369) affect the height of saltgrass plants when
compared to control sites [108]. See the Research Project Summary
Vegetative response to fire exclusion and prescribed fire rotation on 2 Maryland salt marshes
for an extended report on this study.
For information on response of saltgrass and other vernal pool herbs
to prescribed fire, see Hansen's [77] thesis: The effect of fire and fire frequency on grassland species composition in California's Tulare Basin.pdf.


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Plant Response to Fire

More info for the terms: cover, density, frequency, marsh

Saltgrass tolerates pioneer conditions [28,30,42,68,86,87,144,151,197,221,312] such as burn sites [327]. Saltgrass seed dispersal onto burned sites in wetlands is primarily effected by water [101,102,113,227,287,306]. Waterfowl may also disperse seed in wetlands [256,326]. In nonhydrologic areas, wind may disperse saltgrass seeds onto burn sites. Saltgrass seed banks survive burns, allowing for on-site seedling germination [287,293]. Further, saltgrass seed dormancy [7,322] allows for germination on early seral burns.

Saltgrass recovers from burning by rhizomatous spread and/or establishing from seed. Research findings on the effects of fire on saltgrass are mixed. Saltgrass coverage and frequency have been found to decrease [77,122], increase [108,194,327,328,352], and remain unchanged [189] following fire. A California study study found that while percent cover of saltgrass decreased after fire, stem density increased [77]. Other studies have found that fire causes an increase in the nutrient and caloric content of saltgrass [142,289]. Saltgrass increased in below- and aboveground biomass after a fire in a Louisiana salt marsh [121]. In Utah, a salt marsh was drained, burned, and then subsequently reflooded. Following the fire and reflooding, a significant (p<0.05) reduction in saltgrass occurrence was observed at postfire month 8 [294]. Further, the fire and reflooding caused a reduction in living roots and rhizomes [290] and saltgrass seeds in the marsh seed bank [287,293].


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Immediate Effect of Fire

Fire top-kills saltgrass. The seeds and rhizomes generally survive fire [287,289,290].


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Post-fire Regeneration

More info for the terms: ground residual colonizer, initial off-site colonizer, rhizome, secondary colonizer

Rhizomatous herb, rhizome in soil
Ground residual colonizer (on-site, initial community)
Initial off-site colonizer (off-site, initial community)
Secondary colonizer (on-site or off-site seed sources)


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Fire Ecology

More info for the terms: cover, fire exclusion, fire frequency, fire interval, fire regime, frequency, fuel, marsh, natural, nonnative species, peat, presence, shrub, shrubs

Fire adaptations: Saltgrass establishes after fire through seed and/or lateral spread by rhizomes [77,121,194,287,290,293].

FIRE REGIMES: Plant communities providing saltgrass habitat are diverse and exhibit a wide range of fire frequencies. Saltgrass is found in southeastern and Gulf Coast marshes where fires may occur once or more every year [122,328] and in desert shrub communities that have fire return intervals of less than 35 to over 100 years [165,244]. Saltgrass is a cover species in the northern cordgrass prairie. Without intervention by Native Americans, marsh islands in this community may have been completely fire free [188].

Desert grassland communities: Prior to land use changes, grassland communities where saltgrass occurs burned regularly [218,344]. While there is relatively little fire frequency information available on the time prior to the 1880s, it is estimated that fire occurred every 7 to 10 years [218]. In some areas grassland fires played an important role in thwarting invasion by woody vegetation such as mesquite (Prosopis spp.), creosote, and juniper (Juniperus spp.) [263]. However, grazing pressures and fire exclusion have promoted the conversion of desert grassland communities to shrub-dominated communities [244]. The establishment of shrubs in desert grasslands has decreased available fuels and, subsequently, fire frequencies [47,244,324].

Desert shrub communities: Saltgrass is a dominant species in Afton Canyon, located in the lower Mojave River drainage of the western Mojave Desert, California [203]. Historically, the fire interval in this mesquite-saltbush (Atriplex confertifolia) dominated environment was less than 35 to over 100 years [218,244]. However, the infestation of the drought-deciduous saltcedar (Tamarix ramosissima) has altered the historic fire regime, promoting a fire interval of about 10 to 20 years [203].

Great Basin sagebrush steppe: Saltgrass is found on big basin sagebrush steppes in the intermountain West. The historic fire return interval ranged from 40 to 100 years, but changes in land use and management practices, such as the invasion of cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), have altered fire return interval to less than every 10 years in some areas [236,244].

Great Plains grasslands: Saltgrass is a minor species in the dry valley and wet meadow habitats (~2% and 1.5% species composition, respectively), an important species (~7%) in the dry meadow habitat, and a dominant species (~46%) in the saltgrass habitats of the tallgrass prairies of the Nebraska sandhills [115]. There is little documentation of the frequency of fire in presettlement times in the sandhills, but fires were likely common, occurring every 1 to 10 years [244,285]. Since the 1900s, lightning-caused fires are well reported and occur often, yet are quickly suppressed [37]. Fire played a beneficial role in preserving the tallgrass prairies of the Nebraska sandhills. Cultivation and suppression of fire on tallgrass prairies has led to an increase in woody vegetation [20,46].

Fire also played an important historical role in Great Plains mixed-grass prairies, where saltgrass occurs. The large tracts of continuous mixed-grass prairie, which occur in seasonally hot, dry areas and accumulate much fine fuel, are susceptible to frequent lightning fires. Early records kept by explorers, trappers, and settlers note a high occurrence of fires, both natural and anthropogenic, with frequent low-severity fires occurring at intervals of 5 to 10 years [81,244,345]. Since the early 1900s, fire has been excluded and nonnative species such as Japanese brome (Bromus japonicus), smooth brome, Kentucky bluegrass, crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum), and Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) have taken a strong hold in the area [81].

Northern cordgrass prairies: In all of the communities discussed above saltgrass occurs in alkaline wetlands, which have different fuel loads than the surrounding vegetation. Saltgrass-cordgrass communities dominate the northern cordgrass prairies composed of tidal and salt marshes. Very little is known about fire intervals in the northern cordgrass prairies, particularly north of Chesapeake Bay. Frost [116,117] identifies a fire frequency of 1 to 12 years in saline and brackish marshes. In Landfire's Rapid Assessment Reference Condition model of the northern cordgrass prairie, mean occurrence of stand-replacement fires is 7 years, with a range of 2 to 50 years. Stand-replacement fires account for 97% of fires in the northern cordgrass prairie. The other 3% are mixed-severity fires, which occur very infrequently. FIRE REGIMES in the northern cordgrass prairies vary widely because the probability of ignition is affected by the presence of open water channels, connection to uplands, and the natural fire regime of adjacent uplands. Northern cordgrass prairie marsh islands likely would have been fire free unless ignited by Native Americans [188].

Southeastern and Gulf Coast marshes: Fire has always been an important part of southeastern United States coastal marsh ecosystems, where saltgrass is often dominant. Spontaneous combustion has been observed in dry peat soils, and lightning frequently starts marsh fires in Florida and Louisiana [235]. Saltgrass, black rush, sawgrass, and cordgrass are common in estuarine marshes of Everglades National Park, Florida. Except for fires occurring in mangrove (Rhizophora, Avicennia, and/or Laguncularia spp.) communities, where fires were allowed to burn due to inaccessibility and natural containment by mangroves and high water levels, suppression of all fires was National Park Service policy beginning in 1947. Two fire seasons occur in the Everglades: 1) human-caused fires during the dry season November through May, and 2) lightning fires caused by convective storms during the summer. Beginning in 1969 the National Park Service began conducting annual prescribed burning in pinelands, prairies, and marshes at Rockefeller State Wildlife Refuge, Louisiana, where saltgrass codominates with saltmeadow cordgrass and smooth cordgrass. Federal agencies now have an extensive burning program in saltgrass habitats. In Louisiana and Texas, Gabrey and Afton [122,328] observed between 0 to 8 lightning-ignited fires occurring each year from June to August during the years 1993 to 1998. Acreage burned ranged from less than 2 acres (<1 ha) to over 1,240 acres (>500 ha) [122].

The following table provides fire return intervals for plant communities and ecosystems where saltgrass is important. For further information, see the FEIS review of the dominant species listed below.

Community or Ecosystem Dominant Species Fire Return Interval Range (years)
bluestem prairie Andropogon gerardii var. gerardii-Schizachyrium scoparium 183,244]
Nebraska sandhills prairie Andropogon gerardii var. paucipilus-Schizachyrium scoparium <10
sagebrush steppe Artemisia tridentata/Pseudoroegneria spicata 20-70 [244]
basin big sagebrush Artemisia tridentata var. tridentata 12-43 [271]
mountain big sagebrush Artemisia tridentata var. vaseyana 15-40 [11,48,223]
Wyoming big sagebrush Artemisia tridentata var. wyomingensis 10-70 (40**) [325,350]
saltbush-greasewood Atriplex confertifolia-Sarcobatus vermiculatus 244]
mangrove Avicennia nitida-Rhizophora mangle 35-200 [233]
desert grasslands Bouteloua eriopoda and/or Pleuraphis mutica <35 to <100 [244]
plains grasslands Bouteloua spp. 244,345]
blue grama-needle-and-thread grass-western wheatgrass Bouteloua gracilis-Hesperostipa comata-Pascopyrum smithii 244,269,345]
blue grama-buffalo grass Bouteloua gracilis-Buchloe dactyloides 244,345]
grama-galleta steppe Bouteloua gracilis-Pleuraphis jamesii <35 to <100
blue grama-tobosa prairie Bouteloua gracilis-Pleuraphis mutica 244]
cheatgrass Bromus tectorum 249,335]
paloverde-cactus shrub Parkinsonia spp./Opuntia spp. <35 to <100
Arizona cypress Cupressus arizonica <35 to 200
northern cordgrass prairie Distichlis spicata-Spartina spp. 1-3 [244]
California steppe Festuca-Danthonia spp. 244,304]
juniper-oak savanna Juniperus ashei-Quercus virginiana <35
western juniper Juniperus occidentalis 20-70
Rocky Mountain juniper Juniperus scopulorum <35
creosotebush Larrea tridentata <35 to <100
Ceniza shrub Larrea tridentata-Leucophyllum frutescens-Prosopis glandulosa <35 [244]
Everglades Mariscus jamaicensis <10 [233]
wheatgrass plains grasslands Pascopyrum smithii <5-47+ [244,254,345]
pinyon-juniper Pinus-Juniperus spp. <35 [244]
Colorado pinyon Pinus edulis 10-400+ [109,134,177,244]
Pacific ponderosa pine* Pinus ponderosa var. ponderosa 1-47 [10]
interior ponderosa pine* Pinus ponderosa var. scopulorum 2-30 [10,13,192]
galleta-threeawn shrubsteppe Pleuraphis jamesii-Aristida purpurea <35 to <100
eastern cottonwood Populus deltoides <35 to 200 [244]
quaking aspen (west of the Great Plains) Populus tremuloides 7-120 [10,139,219]
mesquite Prosopis glandulosa <35 to <100 [218,244]
mesquite-buffalo grass Prosopis glandulosa-Buchloe dactyloides <35 [244]
mountain grasslands Pseudoroegneria spicata 3-40 (x=10) [9,10]
little bluestem-grama prairie Schizachyrium scoparium-Bouteloua spp. <35
tule marshes Scirpus and/or Typha spp. <35
southern cordgrass prairie Spartina alterniflora 1-3 [244]
baldcypress Taxodium distichum var. distichum 100 to >300
pondcypress Taxodium distichum var. nutans <35 [233]
elm-ash-cottonwood Ulmus-Fraxinus-Populus spp. <35 to 200 [92,328]
*fire return interval varies widely; trends in variation are noted in the species review


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Successional Status

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More info for the terms: marsh, rhizome, scoria, succession

Saltgrass thrives on disturbed sites [4,5], is shade intolerant [318], and occurs in several stages of succession. Saltgrass is described as occurring in early to mid-succession in Gulf Coast salt marshes [4]. The northern cordgrass prairies support a mosaic of seral vegetation. Thirty-five percent of communities are in an early seral condition, the rest are more successionally advanced [188]. Saltgrass rapidly invades disturbed areas in Rhode Island salt marshes. However, it is successionally replaced by saltmeadow cordgrass and saltmeadow rush, and over time it is displaced in low-disturbance habitats where sea levels have risen [28,30,42,86,87,197,221].

Several publications describe saltgrass as important in pioneer-stage vegetation of the West. Henrickson [151] describes saltgrass as a pioneer species on highly saline flats in western North America. Saltgrass is listed as an emergent species at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Utah [40], and as a primary successional species on saline sites in the northern Great Plains where recent disturbances have changed drainage patterns [68].  Hansen and others [144] list saltgrass as an important pioneer species in early stages of succession in southwestern salt marshes. Tolstead [312] describes saltgrass as a pioneer species on lake shores from near the edge of the minimum annual water line outward 6 to 8 feet (1.8-2.4 m) above minimum water tables in the Nebraska sandhills of Cherry County.

Judd [172] found saltgrass occurring in "second weed stage" on scoria (burned lignite) buttes of western North Dakota. Kadlec and Smith [173] list saltgrass as an early seral species on flooded salt flats in the Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Utah. On several small saline areas near the city limits of Lincoln, Nebraska, Ungar [323] describes saltgrass occurring in a late seral stage. Brand [39] lists saltgrass as occurring in secondary succession on the mixed-grass prairie of southwestern North Dakota. In Montana, saltgrass is described as a "climax" species on saline upland and lowland range sites [266].

In a salt marsh of Little Salt Lake, Utah, saltgrass rhizomes extend from favorable growing conditions of low salinity into playas where salt concentrations are much greater. In early spring when water covers much of the playa, waves carrying silt and sand strike the aerial shoots of saltgrass leading to sedimentation around the shoots. The continual process forms a 6 to 8 inch (15-20 cm) high hummock of silty soil around the shoots. Later in the growing season as water evaporates the newly raised hummock favors capillary action. The capillary action draws salts from the rhizome area to the top of the hummock which creates a narrow strip of land for rooting of the extended rhizomes under more favorable conditions [144]. Clonal growth allows for the transport of water among saltgrass ramets in Death Valley, California. This allows for water-sharing between saltgrass populations found in moist and dry environments [6].


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Regeneration Processes

More info for the terms: density, dioecious, marsh, natural, prescribed fire, restoration

Saltgrass reproduces from seeds and rhizomes [61]. Rhizomes are the primary regeneration method [100]. Saltgrass only produces seed in isolated areas where stands are dense and "vigorous" [61,62]. Pavlicek and others [243] describe seed production as playing a minor role in saltgrass reproduction.

Breeding system: Saltgrass is dioecious [21,29,70,276,305].

Pollination: Saltgrass is wind pollinated [29,101,102,136,155,281,319].

Seed production: Fraser and Anderson [111] describe saltgrass as having low seed production. A study of insect predation (grasshoppers and leafhoppers) on saltgrass flowers in a Rhode Island salt marsh found that damaged flowers produced significantly (<0.001) fewer seeds than undamaged flowers [29].

Seed dispersal: In marshes, saltgrass seeds are largely dispersed by water [101,102], with some dispersal by wind and animals. Saltgrass seeds are likely dispersed by wind in nonhydrologic environments. Smith and Kadlec [287] observed saltgrass seeds transported by water at Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area, Utah. Waterfowl carry saltgrass seeds on their feet and feathers [256,326]. On Scott's Landing in the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Oceanville, New Jersey, 3 species of duck were observed transporting the seeds of saltgrass in their feet and feathers on 30 October and 7 November 1992. Saltgrass and smooth cordgrass seeds were the 2 most commonly found in the feathers and feet of the waterfowl. The large majority of seeds was found in the feathers. The following table describes the number of seeds found in feet and feather samples for each bird species (n=sample size and the number in parenthesis represents the number of birds in each sample with seeds) [326]:

Bird species # of seeds
n=24 (18)
n=6 (5)
Black duck
n=4 (3)
n=2 (2)

Seed banking: Saltgrass utilizes a seed bank [287,292]. Saltgrass seeds can remain dormant for at least 4 years [256]. In a needle-and-thread grass (Hesperostipa comata)-blue grama community within Yellowstone National Park, the seed bank of saltgrass (seeds/m²±s x) at 2 sites was 13±13 and 40±23, respectively [58]. Substrate samples measuring 8×8×2 inches (20×20×4 cm) were taken from a saltgrass dominated stand in a diked salt marsh from Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area adjacent to the Great Salt Lake, Utah, in 1981 and 1982. Samples were taken prior to a drawdown of the marsh (April 1981), during the drawdown and prior to a prescribed fire (late August 1981), after the fire (early September 1981), and after restoration of water levels (April 1982). The substrate samples were taken to a greenhouse after each collection period and subjected to either a moist soil treatment (no standing water) or a submersed treatment (1.6 to 2 inches (4-5 cm) above soil surface). The moist soil treatment most closely resembled field conditions. The number of saltgrass seedlings (m²±s x) generally decreased after the spring 1981 collection but was recovering by the final measurement date. Smith and Kadlec [287,293] suggested that the decrease may correspond to the drawdown of the marsh.

Sampling period Moist soil
April 1981 (before drawdown) 850±796 422±291
late August 1981 (during drawdown, before fire) 158±168 463±296
early September 1981 (after fire) 263±561 425±356
April 1982 (after water level restored) 635±555 390±223

At the Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area, there are 5 major vegetation types including saltgrass. When substrate samples were taken in April 1981, saltgrass seedlings emerging in the greenhouse under the moist soil treatment were counted and recorded by vegetation types [288]:

Vegetation type Mean number of saltgrass seedlings/m²±s
cattail (Typha spp.) 64±166
hardstem bulrush (Scirpus acutus) 134±138
cosmopolitan bulrush (Schoenoplectus maritimus) 84±202
common reed (Phragmites australis) 232±254

The mean shoot density (m²±s x) of saltgrass plants emerging from the seed bank in the spring 1981 sampling period was 2,648.0±292.73. The mean soil conductivities of the seed bank samples taken in April and August 1981 were 13.6±9.5 and 28.0±13.1 (mhos/cm±s x), respectively. The mean soil moisture of the seed bank samples taken in April and August 1981 was 43.33%±7.07% and 23.49%±4.58%, respectively [288].

Seed dormancy: The seeds of saltgrass are dormant at dispersal. The dormancy is typically "shallow:" a combination of coat impermeability and an endogenous inhibitor, such as a brief low-temperature after-ripening period that elicits germination [7].

Germination: Saltgrass produces dormant seeds [7,322]. Stratification and scarification promote saltgrass seed germination [7,61]. Saltgrass seeds taken from a California salt marsh and placed in a moist environment germinated at a rate of 76% when scarified, 94% when stratified at 40 °F (4 °C), and 28% when left untreated [7]. Saltgrass germination rates in a greenhouse were best (58%) under a temperature regime of 50 °F (10 °C) for 16 hours and 104 °F (40 °C) for 8 hours. One lot of seeds germinated at a rate of 96% under a temperature regime of 50 °F (10 °C) for 16 hours and 122 °F (50 °C) for 8 hours, but on average most collections germinated best under the 50/104 °F regime [61,351]. In another greenhouse study, Eddleman [95] found that seeds 8 months or more of age had the best rate of germination.

Several authors suggest that saltgrass seed germination requires a 68 °F (20 °C) diurnal fluctuation and an osmotic potential of −0.1 Mpa [61,62,267,303]. These 2 conditions rarely overlap in natural seedbeds. This suggests that natural germination of saltgrass in saline seedbeds may occur only in early spring when the seedbed is cool and wet, or in the spring and summer when the soil is saturated, such as in a marsh or a field under unusually high precipitation [267]. Kadlec and Wentz [174] claim that germination of saltgrass seeds decreases as salinities increase, and that seeds require exposure to air and/or light for germination. Cluff and others [61,62] suggest that germination is a rare episodic event, occurring only when favorable moisture events coincide with optimum seedbed temperatures.

Eppley [101] found that saltgrass seed mass significantly (p = 0.0001) affects germination success. Saltgrass seeds from Tomales Bay, California, that successfully germinated had a mean weight of 1.39 mg. Mean mass of ungerminated seeds was 0.93 mg [101].

Seedling establishment/growth: Cluff and others [61,62] suggest that seedling survival decreases linearly with increasing soil salinity levels. They found that 0% of saltgrass seedlings survived in a "highly" saline environment where the seed was harvested, but 95% of saltgrass seedlings survived in a nonsaline environment [61,62].

Eppley [101] studied saltgrass populations in 3 salt marshes in central California at Tomales Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore, and Bodega Bay Marine Laboratory. She found that seedling mortality corresponded with severe high tides. After transplanting saltgrass seedlings into their natural environment at the 3 sites, seedling mortality rate was 0% after 8 days. However, on days 12 and 13 the plots were inundated with severe high tides so that by day 16 the seedling mortality rate was 86.24%. Of the total number of seedlings recorded as dead, 96.42% were dry and brown but still rooted in soil, while the rest were uprooted and not found. Eppley also found that female seedlings had a survival rate of 25.17% in female-majority stands, while male seedling survival rate was significantly (p=0.0232) lower at only 13.49%. Conversely, male and female seedling survival was not significantly different in male-majority stands [101].

Asexual regeneration: Saltgrass reproduces asexually from rhizomes.

Saltgrass can tolerate to differing degrees partial, complete, and repeated complete burial by sand. During 1993, 25 distinct saltgrass rhizomes were collected from a dunefield near Mono Lake, California, planted in pots, and placed in a greenhouse for 5 months. At the end of 5 months the saltgrass plants were transplanted into bigger pots and allowed to acclimate to outside conditions. A simultaneous field experiment was conducted on saltgrass plants that were grown from transplanted rhizomes in a flat area of Mono Lake. Saltgrass plants in the field and pots were subjected to no, partial, complete, and repeated complete burial during the spring and summer growing season. Plants in the field responded significantly (p<0.05) better to complete and repeated burial in the field than plants in pots. Further, plants subjected to burial treatments had greater biomass in their aboveground parts and less biomass in their belowground parts than plants not buried. The percent of saltgrass plants that survived the 4 treatments is presented below [45]:

Treatments Pots (% survival) Field (% survival)
No burial 100 94
Partial burial 100 100
Complete burial 0 93
Repeated complete burial 0 47


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Growth Form (according to Raunkiær Life-form classification)

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More info for the term: geophyte



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Life Form

More info for the term: graminoid



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Life History and Behavior



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More info for the terms: culm, formation, marsh, warm-season

Saltgrass is a warm-season species that grows rapidly upon seedling establishment [6,21,22,64,70,133,170,176,185,231]. In the western United States saltgrass generally flowers between May and September [70,133,156,176,211,231]. Saltgrass produces dormant seeds in early fall [7,322]. At the Price Lake area of Rockefeller Refuge, Louisiana, saltgrass blooms in spring and fall due to mild winters and a growing period of 326 days. Seed production reaches its peak in late summer [216]. At Bayou Terre aux Boeufs, Louisiana, an old Mississippi River deltaic formation, saltgrass standing crop increased until the 1st week of August, when peak flowering occurred. At its peak in August 1975, saltgrass net production was 1,291 g/m² [337]. The flowering period for saltgrass is presented below:


Flower period
Illinois July to October [226]
North Carolina June to October [255]
South Carolina June to October [255]
New England begins: ~16 July to 6 August
ends: ~23 September to 12 October [277]
western United States May to September [70,133,156,176,211,231]
Baja California April to July [338]

The average plant height and green leaves per culm were measured in saltgrass stands during the 1982 and 1983 growing seasons at Porter Lake, Saskatchewan. Saltgrass inflorescences emerged during June, and 50% of flowering occurred by 15 June in both 1982 and 1983 [274]:

Year Saltgrass height (% of maximum)
May June July August
1982 ~7.5% ~40% ~95% 100%
1983 --- ~55% ~90% 100%


Year Average number of green leaves/culm
June July August September October
1982 ~1.5 ~5.0 ~4.7 ~3.8 ~1.5
1983 ~2.0 ~4.0 ~4.1 ~3.8 0

The phenological development of saltgrass in a western Utah salt marsh community is described below. Date of initial growth describes the 1st appearance of green shoots and date of anthesis describes when the 1st bud or floral development is visible to the naked eye. "Warm" represents saltgrass's growth in areas influenced by warmed spring water, while "normal" represents areas outside the warm spring water [33]:

  "Warm" "Normal"
Date of initial growth 2 April 14 April
Date of anthesis 30 May 10 June


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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Barcode data: Distichlis spicata

The following is a representative barcode sequence, the centroid of all available sequences for this species.

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Statistics of barcoding coverage: Distichlis spicata

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 3
Specimens with Barcodes: 3
Species With Barcodes: 1
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY 3.0)

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Conservation Status

National NatureServe Conservation Status


Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure

United States

Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure

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NatureServe Conservation Status

Rounded Global Status Rank: G5 - Secure

Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial 3.0 (CC BY-NC 3.0)

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Saltgrass is listed as critically imperiled in Missouri [210].


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Please consult the PLANTS Web site and your State Department of Natural Resources for this plant’s current status (e.g. threatened or endangered species, state noxious status, and wetland indicator values).

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Pests and potential problems

Saltgrass is the alternate host for the red rust (Puccinia aristidae, also known as Puccinia subnitens) that infects spinach. Although the red rust disease is difficult for shippers to detect, it grows rapidly during transit. Since little is known about this disease, there are no recommended control techniques. Saltgrass eradication has been the only method used so far because the pathogen cannot complete its life cycle without this alternate host plant.

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Management considerations

More info for the terms: cover, density, frequency, litter, marsh, natural, nonnative species


Saltgrass is described as an "increaser" under grazing pressures
on rangelands in Montana [185,266], South Dakota [198], and Utah [242].
Studies on dry meadows of the shortgrass prairies in eastern
Colorado and Wyoming found that when saltgrass is consistently grazed to 2
inches (5 cm) or less, its forage production is severely reduced and saltgrass
is replaced by blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) and buffalo grass (Buchloe
dactyloides) [67]. In the Chihuahuan Desert if saltgrass is grazed too heavily it will decline and may
be replaced by the less desirable tumble grass (Schedonnardus paniculatus) [260]. It is recommended that rangelands seeded
with saltgrass should not be grazed for 1 growing season following seeding [299].

A 13-year study on the shortgrass ranges of the central Great Plains assessed
the effects of light, moderate, and heavy grazing on average
frequency, density, and composition of saltgrass. Light grazing is defined as
~20% by weight of the dominant grasses blue grama and buffalo grass grazed by
the end of a 6-month growing season (approximately 10 May to 10 November),
moderate as ~40% by weight of the dominant grasses grazed by the end of the
6-month growing season, and heavy as ~60% by weight of the dominant grasses
grazed by the end of the 6-month growing season. Saltgrass's average frequency,
density, and composition were highest on moderately grazed sites (See table
below). No data were given for saltgrass frequency, density, and composition on
ungrazed sites. The study also found that saltgrass produced an average of 24
(11 kg), 21 (9.5 kg), and 4 pounds (2 kg) of herbage (green weight) per acre
(0.4 ha) during 1950 and 1951 on light, moderate, and heavy grazed sites,
respectively [180].
 Light useModerate useHeavy use
Average frequency (%)322665323
Average density (%).
Average composition (%).

Saltgrass quickly recovers from small-scale anthropogenic disturbances
occurring anytime during the year. A study in a California salt marsh found that
saltgrass increased from 10% cover prior to sediment deposition to 70%
cover after 43 months of recovery [5]. At a site within 2.5 miles (4
km) of Utah Lake, Utah, saltgrass was found to have significantly (p<0.05)
higher frequency on sites infested with saltcedar than sites without it [53]. Natural stands of saltgrass have
survived on school playgrounds in Pueblo, Colorado, for more than 22 years. The Natural Resources Conservation Service
recommends saltgrass as
a potential ground cover for intensive-use areas [79]. Fraser and
Anderson [111] also recommend saltgrass for
ground cover in high-use areas. Rosentreter [265] states that increases in saltgrass
indicate poor conditions in riparian
areas along Idaho waterways.
Several authors discuss the effects of glyphosate [2,204,213,214],
dalapon [213,216,217], fenuron [216,217], diuron [216,217],
imazapyr [298], bromacil [216,217], and 2,4-D [268] on saltgrass.
Whigham [334] discusses the effects of nitrogen fertilization on saltgrass in a hydrologically altered wetland.
Invasive species:
Perennial pepperwood (Lepidium latifolium) is a
nonnative species that has
become dominant in some wetlands in the intermountain West.
Perennial pepperwood has infested wetlands in Uintah County, Utah, where
saltgrass was previously dominant. Saltgrass is shade intolerant [318] and is
interfered with by perennial pepperwood which grows to a
height of 3 to 8 feet (1-2.5 m) [261].
The effects of mowing on a
saltgrass community were studied on Grizzly Island Wildlife Area, California. Three 33 × 33-foot
(10 × 10 m) plots were assigned as control, mowed, and burned
in September 1992 (see Discussion and Qualification of Plant Response). The saltgrass stands were mowed, and cut
plant litter was left on the site. In August 1993 the percent of saltgrass cover
on the mowed site (~95%) was slightly less than on control site (100%).
However, mean stem density of saltgrass on the mowed site
was 4,065.2 ± 1026.5 (s x),
which was significantly
(p<0.05) greater than on the control site (1,722.1 ± 370.1) [77].
At Chassahowitzka Refuge, Florida, mowing was used
to eliminate black rush. After 4 mowing treatments, black rush was 99.5%
eliminated on a 10-acre (4-ha) plot. Prior to the mowing treatments saltgrass
was sparsely present, but following the mowing saltgrass became dominant [232].
Mowing and flooding:
At the Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area adjacent
to the Great Salt Lake, Utah, 5 plots measuring 9.84 × 9.84 inches (0.25 × 0.25 m)
were mowed to the ground. The area mowed was in a drained marsh.
Mowing took place in early September 1981, 1 to 2 months after draining.
On 9 September 1981 reflooding of the marsh occurred. Drowning, mowing, and
subsequent reflooding caused a significant (p<0.05) decrease
in the standing biomass of saltgrass during the 1982 growing season [290].


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Cultivars, improved and selected materials (and area of origin)

LK517f saltgrass’ is a California native, perennial, warm season grass with extensive creeping, yellowish, scaly rhizomes forming large colonies.

Establishment should be in late spring using rhizomes or plugs planted on one-foot centers. Irrigation water should be applied the first summer to ensure stand establishment. LK517f is used for riparian restoration and bank and shoreline stabilization.

Contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly Soil Conservation Service) office for more information. Look in the phone book under ”United States Government.” The Natural Resources Conservation Service will be listed under the subheading “Department of Agriculture.”

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This species can behave invasively in some situations. Please contact your local agricultural extension specialist or county weed specialist to learn what works best in your area and how to use it safely. Always read label and safety instructions for each control method. Trade names and control measures appear in this document only to provide specific information. USDA, NRCS does not guarantee or warranty the products and control methods named, and other products may be equally effective.

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Saltgrass can be managed by burning between September 1 and February 1 biannually, when the water level exceeds the soil surface. Following burning, four inches of re-growth should be obtained before grazing is allowed. Water control systems may need to be installed to maintain correct water levels to avoid prolong inundation, which kills saltgrass. Cattle walkways are usually installed to make the forage more accessible.

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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems


Other uses and values

More info for the term: cactus

Saltgrass was used as a food source by Native Americans in California [8]. The Chumash beat the surface of saltgrass plants to remove incrustations, which were used as condiment salt [310]. The Temalpakh also used saltgrass as a source of condiment salt. Further, the Temalpakh used saltgrass as a cleaning agent. The stiffness of the plant made it an excellent brushing material for cleaning various implements or removing cactus thorns from objects [19].


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Value for rehabilitation of disturbed sites

More info for the terms: cover, density, frequency, marsh, natural, reclamation, restoration

Given its extensive system of rhizomes and roots which form a dense sod, saltgrass is considered an outstanding species for controlling wind and water erosion  [57,96,106,147,187].

On a dry salt lake outside Mexico City, saltgrass has been planted on over 50,000 acres (20,000 ha) to reduce windblown dust and produce forage for cattle. It is one of the largest areas in the world devoted to an introduced halophyte [57]. In 1982 snow fencing was placed on 3 sites at Owens Lake, California, to create artificial sand dunes. Once established, the dunes were planted with saltgrass rhizomes and 4 other plant species. Long-range survival was best for saltgrass at 33% [106]. Dahlgren and others [71] speculate that if small sand dunes are artificially created, saltgrass could be successfully introduced on the dunes to trap and stabilize fugitive fine sand particles that create air pollution hazards. Lancaster and Baas [187] found that sand transported by wind in the Owens Lake area decreases substantially when saltgrass has 15% or more cover.

On the Gulf Coast of Louisiana in the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, the Army Corp of Engineers created salt marshes between 1983 and 1999 by pumping dredging material from the Calcasieu ship channel into previously open water. The purpose of the new marshes was to reduce erosion of the natural marshes bordering the shipping channel. Saltgrass and saltmeadow cordgrass have grown to dominate the higher marsh areas sitting 14 inches (35 cm) above sea level [96].

In 1978 a dike enclosing a 52-acre (21-ha) pasture along the north shore of the Salmon River estuary in northwestern Oregon was removed by the United States Forest Service, allowing the land to return to a salt marsh. In surrounding salt marsh communities saltgrass is a common species. Data were collected for 10 years in the restored and surrounding (control) salt marshes to assess saltgrass's ability to return to natural numbers without reintroduction by humans. Saltgrass did not begin to grow in the restored salt marshes until 1981, and it dominated the marshes by 1984. By 1988 saltgrass had similar numbers in the restored marshes and control marshes [113,227]:

  Restoration Control
1978 1980 1984 1988 1978 1982 1988
Mean cover (%) --- --- 8.0 12.0 7.0 12.0 7.0
Mean frequency (%) --- --- 27.0 24.0 36.0 43.0 28.0

In 1987 a salt marsh was restored using a system of dikes at Elk River near Grays Harbor, Washington. In 1993 a vegetative analysis of the restored marsh found saltgrass had a mean cover of ~5% compared to ~45% in an adjacent marsh. By 1998, saltgrass was the dominant species in the marsh with a mean cover of ~50%. The restored marsh was allowed to revegetate naturally without any human intervention [306].

Saltgrass plants taken from Big Alkali Lake, California, where pH levels are from 10.3 to 10.9, have been tested in a greenhouse to see if they can be used to rehabilitate alkaline bauxite (red mud) impoundments created by aluminum refineries. When the red mud impoundments were amended with sewage sludge nutrients, saltgrass successfully established a healthy population [118,119].

Saltgrass is found on at least 2 metal-contaminated sites in southwestern Montana. The sites are located along Silver Bow Creek near Ramsay, and a few hundred meters from the copper smelter stack near Anaconda. Copper, manganese, and zinc levels in the soil at both locations are 100, 15 to 70, and 4 to 10 times above normal levels, respectively. Given the high metal concentrations in the soil, saltgrass largely excludes these metals from foliage. Only copper concentrations in saltgrass were found to be at or above levels that might pose a risk to humans who consume livestock that graze solely on saltgrass grown on the contaminated sites. Given this, saltgrass is a promising species for use on metal-contaminated soils [253].

Saltgrass was successfully used to reclaim a disturbed site in the Badlands of western North Dakota following a 1982 oil drilling salt water blowout. Saltgrass had a basal cover of 0.8% on the contaminated site in 1982, but following 1983 reclamation it increased to 6.4% by 1984. Average density (plants/m²) of saltgrass increased from 13.3 on the contaminated site in 1982 to 196.6 in 1984 [143].

Study sites infested with saltcedar on the Cimarron River floodplain, Kansas and Rio Grande floodplain, New Mexico, were treated with various herbicides to control further saltcedar spread. Following the eradication of saltcedar, saltgrass was successful in reestablishing on previously infested sites. Four years after the herbicide applications, saltgrass cover ranged from 60% to 90% [160].

Cultivars: There were 2 saltgrass cultivars ('Common' and 'LK517f saltgrass') available as of 2006 [317,318].

If land managers wish to raise saltgrass plants from seed, Cluff and others [61,62] suggest that they be aware of 3 factors. 1) Saltgrass seeds will not germinate under "normal" greenhouse conditions. Seeds germinate best under a temperature regime of 50 °F (10 °C) for 16 hours and 104 °F (40 °C) for 8 hours. 2) If saltgrass seeds are to be applied to land that does not receive predictable summer precipitation, irrigation will be needed for seed germination. 3) If irrigation is needed, water should be applied when seedbed temperatures reach 104 °F (40 °C) during the day and 40 °F (5 °C) to 50 °F (10 °C) at night.


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Importance to Livestock and Wildlife

More info for the terms: cover, frequency, marsh, swamp

Livestock generally avoid saltgrass due to its coarse foliage [161,167]. Saltgrass's value as forage depends primarily on the relative availability of other grasses of higher nutritional value and palatability. It can be an especially important late summer grass in arid environments after other forage grasses have deceased [303]. Saltgrass is rated fair to good as a forage species only because it stays green after most other grasses dry [176]. In the Badlands of the Dakotas saltgrass has considerable importance on saline soils where few other grasses grow. Domestic sheep in the Badlands eat it more readily than any other species [340]. Saltgrass and alkali sacaton contribute from 60% to 90% of the available forage on eastern Colorado and Wyoming dry, saline meadows within shortgrass prairies. Saltgrass provides 15.3% of available winter forage for cattle and domestic sheep in black greasewood communities in southern Colorado [67]. In many salt marsh areas of the interior United States, saltgrass provides the sole forage for cattle during the summer growing season. Saltgrass provides 2.0% of the total forage production in the sandhills of Nebraska [115].

Saltgrass is minimally utilized by ungulates. A study on Assateague Island, located off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia, found that feral horses rarely eat saltgrass. When feral horses were denied food for a day and placed in an area containing only saltgrass, they were observed to eat only a few mouthfuls [120]. The seeds of saltgrass are a food source for pronghorn throughout the Great Basin of the United States [209]. Robinson [264] describes saltgrass as a source of food for mule deer on the Los Padres National Forest, California.

Saltgrass seeds and rhizomes provide an important food source for waterfowl. Saltgrass is a minor food source for American coots in the northern Sacramento Valley, California [32]. Along the southwestern Louisiana coastline, saltgrass has very little food value for ducks, but geese graze the roots and rhizomes following fire or livestock grazing, which removes the tough, dense aerial stems [54]. Saltgrass seeds are an important source of winter food for waterfowl along the Gulf Coast. Saltgrass seeds were found in the gizzards of 41.0% of all waterfowl studied in Rockefeller Refuge, Louisiana. Saltgrass seeds were found in 1.8% of gizzards in mallards who wintered in freshwater marshes and in 86.0% of gizzards in mallards who wintered in brackish marshes [56]. Blue and snow geese feed on the rhizomes of saltgrass during the winter and early spring in burned meadows on the Gulf Coast of Mexico between the Delta of the Mississippi River and Galveston Bay [205,222].

The stomach contents of 60 ducks of various species in the Pot Holes region of eastern Washington were analyzed. Saltgrass was found in 6 stomachs, accounting for 3.2% of total food volume. Based on frequency of occurrence and percentage of total, Harris [150] lists saltgrass as the 4th and 6th most important food source for waterfowl in the area. The stomach contents of 27 cinnamon teal from the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, were analyzed to assess their food preferences. Saltgrass occurred in the stomach contents of 57.1% of the cinnamon teal dissected [307].

Saltgrass-saltmeadow cordgrass-saltmeadow rush communities within the Connecticut River estuary provide important habitat for a variety of waterfowl and seabirds [69].

Rodents: Common muskrats graze saltgrass rhizomes during the winter and in early spring in burned meadows on the Gulf Coast of Mexico between the Delta of the Mississippi River and Galveston Bay [205]. Saltgrass is a minor food for common muskrats in Atlantic coast salt marshes [91]. The seeds of saltgrass are a food source for ground squirrels throughout the Great Basin on the United States [209]. On Hatteras Island, North Carolina [224], and in Maryland marshes [341] nonnative nutria eat the roots and rhizomes of saltgrass during late summer.

Fish and invertebrates: Saltgrass is an important source of food and cover for numerous fish and decapod crustaceans along the coast of Louisiana [270]. Saltgrass provides important cover for a variety of micro- and macroinvertebrates in a salt marsh at the California Department of Fish and Game's Grizzly Island Wildlife Area [77,78]. The stunt nematode is found living around the roots and rhizomes of saltgrass in Death Valley, California [132]. The ribbed mussel is found in the saltmeadow cordgrass-saltgrass community-type in Smith Cove, Rhode Island [26].

Palatability/nutritional value: Saltgrass is a wiry, coarse grass with low palatability. It is utilized only when more desirable forage is unavailable [156,161,176,228,260]. While largely unpalatable, saltgrass is relatively high in protein [61].

The palatability of saltgrass for livestock and wildlife species has been rated as follows [82,280]:

  Colorado Montana North Dakota Texas Utah Wyoming
Cattle fair poor poor fair fair fair
Domestic sheep fair fair poor ---- poor fair
Horses fair good fair fair fair good
Pronghorn ---- poor poor ---- poor poor
Elk ---- poor ---- ---- poor good
Mule deer ---- poor poor ---- poor poor
White-tailed deer ---- poor poor ---- ---- poor
Small mammals ---- ---- ---- ---- fair fair
Small nongame birds ---- ---- ---- ---- poor good
Upland game birds ---- ---- ---- ---- poor fair
Waterfowl ---- good fair ---- fair good

The nutritional content (x±s) of a saltgrass community within a shortgrass prairie at the Central Plains Experimental Range, Colorado, is presented below [36]:

N (%) P (%) K (%) Ca (%) Mg (%) Na (%) Cl (%)
0.87±0.19 0.16±0.03 0.64±0.18 0.29±0.07 0.095±0.016 0.160±0.110 0.55±0.33

The chemical composition and nutritive value of saltgrass in full bloom, taken from a North Dakota grassland on 1 August, was [161]:

Moisture (%) Ash (%) Crude protein (%) Ether extract (%) Crude fiber (%) N-free extract (%)
15.0 8.91 8.11 1.50 26.53 39.95

At Goshen, Utah, crude protein content of aboveground saltgrass biomass gradually decreased from 1 April to 30 July. On a dry weight basis, saltgrass crude protein decreased from 15 to 5%. From 30 July to 20 September, protein content remained relatively constant at 5% [144].

Saltgrass and 9 other plants taken from southern coastal marshes (Georgia and Florida) were less palatable to 13 species of herbivores than identical salt marsh plants from 2 New England coastal salt marshes (Rhode Island and Maine). New England salt marsh plants were harvested and flown to the southeast and southeastern plants were harvested and flown to New England and fed to 13 species of crabs, beetles, grasshoppers, and moths at both locations. Overall, 127 out of 149 feeding trials indicated a significant (p<0.05) or marginally significant (p<0.06) preference for saltgrass and salt marsh plants taken from New England by both northern and southern herbivores. Exact New England plant traits preferred by herbivores is not fully known, but Pennings and others [247] suggest that differences in toughness, nitrogen and mineral content, and secondary metabolites may affect palatability.

Saltgrass plant detritus as a nutritive source of food for estuarine species was investigated in a marsh-estuary at St. Louis Bay, Mississippi. Organic, caloric, and proximate nutritive values of saltgrass plants were taken twice while the plants were living and 3 times after plant mortality [76]:

Life stage Mean organic content
(% ash-free dry weight)
Mean caloric value
Crude fiber
(% ash-free)
(% ash-free)
(% ash-free)
Young plant 86.6 4.67 32.19 51.16 10.96 2.02
Mature plant 93.5 4.71 30.74 58.85 7.38 1.61
Dead plant 91.6 4.71 31.46 53.07 2.59 1.12
Partially decomposed 89.9 4.69 37.20 48.71 5.54 0.80
Particulate detritus 63.2 4.67 10.0 39.83 11.44 0.75

Cover value: Saltgrass provides cover for a variety of bird species, small mammals, and arthropods. At Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Nebraska, Wilson's phalarope nests are found extensively in saltgrass stands [34]. Great blue herons of Sidney Island, British Columbia, utilized Virginia glasswort-saltgrass communities as "loafing" areas [49]. Saltgrass dominated and codominated stands provide exceptional cover for a wide range of bird species in the Chenier Plain of the Gulf of Mexico which extends from Vermillion Bay, Louisiana to East Bay, Texas [120,122,123,124]. Saltgrass communities provide important habitat and cover for shorebirds at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, Kansas [302].

A study of duck nests in the 14,189-acre (5,742-ha) Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado, found that from 0% to 6.7% of 6 major duck species nested in saltgrass stands [129]:

Duck species

% of nests

Mallard 2.3
Gadwall 1.6
Cinnamon teal 4.8
Northern pintail 6.7
Northern shoveler 5.1
Redhead 0

A survey of duck nests in the 25,000-acre (10,120-ha) Bear River Refuge, Utah, found that from 7% to 65% of the 7 duck species placed their nests in saltgrass stands [339]:

Duck species % of nests
Gadwall 9
Cinnamon teal 50
Redhead 9
Mallard 7
Northern pintail 46
Ruddy 20
Northern shoveler 65

The Pot Holes area of eastern Washington provides exceptional habitat for waterfowl. In a saltgrass dominated meadow, 32 nests of various waterfowl were counted [150]:

Waterfowl species

# of nests

Mallard 3
Pintail 2
Gadwall 3
Northern shoveler 3
Green-winged teal 3
Blue-winged and/or cinnamon teal 8
Blue-winged teal 1
Cinnamon teal 2
Ruddy duck 1
Unidentified teal 4
Unidentified duck 2

Saltgrass provides cover for river otters and Everglades mink in the Big Cypress Swamp, Florida [166]. Common muskrat lodges are commonly found in saltgrass stands along the southeastern Texas coast between Galveston Bay and Louisiana, encompassing 260,000 acres (110,000 ha) [193,205].


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Livestock: Under favorable soil and moisture conditions, studies have shown Saltgrass favorable for pastures irrigated with saline water. The total dry matter yields were 9081 kg/ha with a total protein production of 1300 kg/ha. Saltgrass is grazed by both cattle and horses and it has a forage value of fair to good because it remains green when most other grasses are dry during the drought periods and it is resistant to grazing and trampling. It is cropped both when green and in the dry state; however, it is most commonly used the winter for livestock feed. Saltgrass along the Atlantic coast was the primary source of hay for the early colonists.

Wildlife: Saltgrass is a larval foodplant for the Wandering Skipper (Panoquina panoquinoides errans) butterfly. It is also an important food in the diet of waterfowl and the Florida salt marsh vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus dukecampbelli), which is on the Endangered and Threatened Species List of Southeastern United States. Ducks are reported to occasionally eat the dried seeds and controlled burning provides tender forages for wild geese.

Distichlis spicata is significant in the salt marshes, which provide nesting grounds for birds, fish and larvae of many species of marine invertebrate animals. As salt marsh plants decompose, their stored nutrients provide a steady source of food for clams, crabs, and fish.

Wetland Restoration: The thick entangled roots of salt marsh plants acts as a guard between the ocean and the shore protecting the land from pollutants and other chemicals associated with runoff water. It is particularly useful in saline/alkaline wetlands.

Medicine: Saltgrass is a respiratory allergenic plant that is offered by Miles Pharmaceutical and used by Florida physicians to treat respiratory allergies.

Spice: Indians that inhabited California used saltgrass as a seasoning. They collected the salt crystals by threshing the blades. The seasoning provided is gray-green and said to have tasted like a salty dill pickle.

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Distichlis spicata

This article is about the plant commonly called saltgrass. For the restaurant concept, see Saltgrass Steakhouse.

Distichlis spicata is a species of grass known by several common names, including seashore saltgrass, inland saltgrass, and desert saltgrass. This grass is native to the Americas, where it is widespread.[1] It can be found on other continents as well, where it is naturalized. It is extremely salt tolerant.[2]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

Distichlis spicata thrives along coastlines and on salt flats and disturbed soils, as well as forest, woodland, montane, and desert scrub habitats. It can form dense monotypic stands, and it often grows in clonal colonies. Non-clonal populations tend to be skewed toward a majority of one sex or the other. The grass forms sod with its hearty root system. Its rhizomes have sharp points which allow it to penetrate hard soils and aerenchymous tissues, which allow it to grow underwater and in mud.

This plant grows easily in salty and alkaline soils, excreting salts from its tissues via salt glands.[3]


Distichlis spicata is a hardy perennial with rhizomes and sometimes stolons. It is an erect grass which occasionally approaches half a meter in height but is generally shorter. The solid, stiff stems have narrow leaves up to 10 centimeters in length, which may be crusted with salt in saline environments.[4]

This species is dioecious, meaning the male flowers and female flowers grow on separate individuals. The pistillate inflorescence may be up to 8 centimeters long, with green or purple-tinted spikelets. The staminate flowers look quite similar, thinner but larger overall and denser. The flower parts of both sex may be bright pinkish-purple.


Because it gets rid of excess salts by secreting it onto its surfaces, the Kawaiisu Indians were able to make salt blocks by scraping off the salt.[2]

"Under favorable soil and moisture conditions, studies have shown Saltgrass favorable for pastures irrigated with saline water. The total dry matter yields were 9081 kg/ha with a total protein production of 1300 kg/ha. Saltgrass is grazed by both cattle and horses and it has a forage value of fair to good because it remains green when most other grasses are dry during the drought periods and it is resistant to grazing and trampling. It is cropped both when green and in the dry state; however, it is most commonly used the winter for livestock feed. Saltgrass along the Atlantic coast was the primary source of hay for the early colonists."(USDA Plants Database, Plant Profile)


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Names and Taxonomy



Distichlis spicata ssp. spicata (L.) E. Greene [338]

Distichlis spicata ssp. stricta (Torr.) Thorne [330]

Distichlis spicata var. stolonifera Beetle [338]

Distichlis spicata var. stricta (Torr.) Scribn. [137]

Distichlis stricta (Torr.) Rydb. [156]

Distichlis stricta var. dentata (Rydb.) C.L. Hitchc. [156,157]


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The currently accepted scientific name of saltgrass is Distichlis spicata
(L.) Greene (Poaceae) [60,80,93,130,131,156,157,171,175,176,190,211,255,331,348].


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Common Names


spike grass

inland saltgrass

coastal saltgrass

desert saltgrass

seashore saltgrass


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