A perennial native to North America, alkali saltgrass (Distichlis spicata) has been naturalized on most other continents. Depending upon where it is found, this member of the Grass Family (Poaceae) has many other colloquial names including inland saltgrass, desert saltgrass and seashore saltgrass.
Alkali saltgrass is very tolerant of saline and droughty conditions. A low plant that can grow to a foot or more in some environments, alkali saltgrass is usually more dwarfed in high saline regions.
Alkali saltgrass reproduces by seed and by creeping underground rhizomes that root at the joints to produce new stems, often forming dense colonies. When it invades irrigated land, ditches and field margins, alkali saltgrass is considered an invasive or noxious weed.
The alternate leaves (blades) are usually bluish-green and come up the stem in 2 rows. Salt crystals are extruded from the leaves of alkali saltgrass in high saline areas. These salt crystals make the plant feel gritty or sandy. Indigenous people would collect the salt crystals for flavoring.
This is one of the few grasses with male and female plants, both of which look similar in appearance. The spikelets (floral unit of a grass inflorescence) are large, compressed, overlapping and clustered at the top of the stem.
Alkali saltgrass is of little value as a forage but is grazed when better grasses are not available. This plant is also used in modern pharmaceuticals and to treat respiratory allergies.
Distichlis, the genus name, comes from the Greek word “distichos” meaning 2-ranked and refers to the two rows of leaves. In Latin the species designation means “flowers in spikes”.
There is a small, low area in Ash Creek Wildlife Area (Lassen County CA) covered in sodium sulfate, a perfect habitat for this hearty grass that thrives in dry, saline and alkali conditions.