Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
Marine Botany
Distichlis spicata

Patches of salt grass (brown), Moss Landing, CA


Distichlis spicata can be found in 43 states in the United States as well as throughout Central and South America. Although native to many of these areas, saltgrass is also very effective as an invasive species, and at least one state (Nebraska) has officially classified it as an invasive weed [3, 13]

As a non-obligatory halophyte, Distichlis can survive in areas of both fresh and salt waters where the water table varies between six inches below and two inches above the soil surface. The lacunae tissue of the roots and rhizomes is apparently continuous with that of the leaf sheath, allowing for gas exchange and survival in conditions of partial inundation, an ability found in only a small percentage of terrestrial plants [3, 10]. The plant can also survive short periods of flooding, recovering from twenty four days of complete inundation in one study [10]. On the other end of the spectrum, saltgrass is also amazingly also one of the most drought-tolerant species in the dry, western interior of the United States [12].

Although Distichlis can grow easily in fresh water environments, the plant is usually out-competed by other angiosperms in less saline regions, and hence is commonly dominant only in saline environments [2]. Examples of these communities include salt marshes, seasonal desert lake beds, and areas with high localized soil or water salinity [10, 12].


Although not always a prominent species, Distichlis spicata can be found in a wide range of ecosystems, including salt marshes, sandy shores, prairies, hardwood forests, plains grasslands, and deserts among others. The following photos showcase four of these habitats as found in the Monterey Bay area (Elkhorn Slough, Moss Landing, and the Hopkins Marine Station):

Clockwise from top left - mud flat, sandy shore, rocky shore, grass field

In the salt marshes, Distichlis provides food for various species of ducks and geese as well as nesting sites for birds, fish and marine invertebrate larvae [11, 12]. Distichlis' thick systems of roots and rhizomes can help stabilize unconsolidated soil and counteract erosion in at risk locations.

The Monterey Bay Area:

In the Monterey Bay area, Distichlis was identified by the author around the borders of Elkhorn Slough and at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station. A full survey of likely habitats of saltgrass in Monterey Bay was not feasible under the time constraints of this project - the author strongly believes, however, that Distichlis is almost certainly found in numerous other locations in Monterey Bay area that were not examined.

A map and discussion of the distribution of Distichlis at Hopkins Marine Station can be found here. This map was made in the process of collecting informal data on the effect of salinity on morphology.

Last updated March 2003, Justin Kitzes.

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