Depending on their location, intertidal marsh plants must tolerate varying amounts of submergence in brackish tidal water and varying degrees of salinity. Some plants thrive in a broad range of marsh conditions while others only survive within narrow environmental parameters.
One of the first plants to colonize sand flats and also found at low marsh elevations is pickleweed (Salicornia virginica, also seen as S. depressa). A member of the Goosefoot Family, this perennial is native and found along the coastal areas of North America. In addition to tidal flats, pickleweed also grows along beaches where the surf and wave action is mild and in some alkaline flats.
Growing from rhizomes, pickleweed stems are fleshy and succulent, cylindrical, hairless and jointed. These stems branch and are often trailing, forming thick mats. The opposite leaves are reduced to minute scales – essentially the leaves are absent. The tiny, greenish flowers are sunk into cavities in the joints of spikes at the branch tips. Occurring in groups of three to seven, the flowers have no petals. The fruits are membranous bladders with thin papery walls containing one seed per bladder. Pickleweed stores fresh water in its leaves to dilute the salt.
The common name, pickleweed, refers to the branching stems which look like pickles. I guess! Other common names for S. virginica are American glasswort or Virginia glasswort (Wort means plant.) because the plant was turned into ash providing the alkali used in glass making. Alkali from pickleweed was also used in making soap. Saltwort and sea asparagus are also colloquial names.
Pickleweed tastes salty but can be used either raw or cooked as a green vegetable. I enjoy nibbling on small pieces while on the trail. Boiled then put into any pickling mix, pickleweed lives up to its name and makes a tasty condiment.
Medicinally pickleweed poultices are used to relieve arthritic pain, rheumatism and other aches, pains and swellings.
These pickleweeds were photographed at the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve north of Bandon OR.