Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
Marine Botany
Distichlis spicata

Morphology: Macroscopic
(see also Morphology: Microscopic)

Complete plant with shoots and underground rhizome, Elkhorn Slough, CA

Basic Structure:

Distichlis spicata is a perennial, warm-season grass that shares a number of characteristics with other species of grasses commonly found throughout the world.

Above ground, saltgrass exhibits a pattern of paired blades which grow off opposite sides of the stem in the shape of a "V". The greenish-gray blades are stiff and pointed and dry to a golden-brown color (many of the photos on this website were taken during the winter in the month of February and hence show Distichlis in this dry, golden state).

Branching Distichlis blades, Hopkins Marine Station and Moss Landing

Below the ground, Distichlis grows and spreads through a network of rhizomes, a horizontal subterranean stem that sends out both roots and the shoots that eventually form the above-ground stems and blades. These rhizomes grow at depths on average approximately four inches below the soil surface. They are generally scaly and pointed and are extremely good at piercing even shales and very dense clays, making them a common pioneer species in areas without developed soils [3, 10]. A small section of rhizome can actually grow into an entire Distichlis plant, providing a second method of reproduction in addition to by seed.

The roots system is generally dense but shallow - one study in Nevada never found roots growing more than sixteen inches under the surface [10].

Close up of rhizome and root system of plant at top of page

Of primary importance to the lives and growth of Distichlis plants are the structure and function of the plants' salt glands, which extrude an extremely concentrated, largely sodium brine from specially evolved cells on the blades and stem. An entire section of this website has been devoted to this unique feature.

Additionally, numerous studies have indicated that the growth and morphology of a Distichlis plant is strongly influenced by the soil and/or water salinity it encounters at a given location. The salinity and morphology section of this site has more information on this specific topic.

Last updated March 2003, Justin Kitzes.

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