While Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act regulates all types ofwetlands, including coastal wetlands, North Carolina's Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) provides additional protection to coastal wetlands.
CAMA defines a coastal wetland as any marsh subject to regular or occasional flooding by wind or lunar tides. These marshlands must contain some, but not necessarily all, of 10 particular wetland plants discussed below.
For the most part, it's easy to identify coastal wetlands. They generally are located adjacent to salty water, such as a sound or other brackish water body. They are characterized by marsh grasses and rarely contain trees.
Although other non-coastal wetlands may be located adjacent to coastal wetlands, non-coastal wetlands are not typically flooded by salty or brackish waters and are usually characterized by stands of trees or taller brush.
Coastal wetlands can be identified by determining if some of the following 10 plant species are present in the marsh land area:
1. Spartina alterniflora: Salt Marsh Cordgrass (Smooth Cordgrass)
Salt marsh cordgrass is the most common plant and prime indicator of a coastal wetland. It forms 1-foot- to 8-foot-tall meadows that grow just up to the open water's edge. Lush and green in the warmer months, salt marsh cordgrass becomes golden-brown in the fall and dies back in the winter. Salt marsh cordgrass is frequently flooded.
2. Juncus roemerianus: Black Needlerush
Black needlerush has tall (3 to 5 feet) needle-like blades in shades of dark green or gray with sharp blackish tips. It grows in the higher areas of the marsh, or where salt water completely covers the land only during unusually high tides. In these higher elevations of the marsh, needlerush replaces cordgrass as the most common plant species.
3. Salicornia spp: Glasswort
Glasswort is found throughout the marsh, mixed in with cordgrass or on the mud flats. Glasswort grows low to the ground (rarely over 2 feet tall) and has short fleshy green stubby spikes extending from a main stem. Glasswort looks like long green pipe cleaners attached to a long stem. Three species are found in coastal marshes, and one turns pink in the fall.
4. Distichlis spicata: Salt (or Spike) Grass
Salt grass is a short, green, wiry grass that lives among the salt meadow grass above the high tide line.
5. Limonium spp: Sea Lavender
Sea Lavender grows at the fringe of the upper intertidal marsh. The plant looks delicate, with long, skinny leaves that sprout small stems as they grow upward. These stems are covered with tiny purplish-white flowers in the summer and fall.
6. Scirpus spp: Bulrush
With its roots immersed in the mud or water, the bulrush grows into large, thick colonies. The plants can reach up to 10 feet tall, and the tops are crowned with spikelets.
7. Cladium jamaicense: Saw Grass
Saw grass grows to about 6 or 7 feet tall, with long, slender, narrow leaves that look like tall blades of grass. These leaves are stiff and tough, with tiny saw teeth around the edges. The top of saw grass has many branches and branchlets.
8. Typha spp: Cattail
Cattails are easily recognizable by their flower spikes, or cat tails. Cattail spikes can grow up to a foot long and are densely packed with tiny brown flowers. The cattail plant can grow to 10 feet tall. Cattails also commonly grow outside coastal wetlands along freshwater ponds, lakes, rivers and ditches.
9. Spartina patens: Salt Meadow Grass(or Hay)
Salt meadow hay is a low- to medium-height perennial wire-like grass, 1-foot- to 3-feet-tall. It forms dense mats of plants just above the high tide line.
10.Spartina cynosuroides:Salt Reed or Giant Cordgrass
Salt reed is a member of the same family as salt marsh cordgrass, and they have similar features. As its name might suggest, this grass grows taller (up to 10 feet) and thicker thanSpartina alterniflora.
Photos courtesy University of Florida, IFAS, Center for Aquatic Plants (Gainesville).