by Kyle D. Sweet, CGCS
The site of Sea Oats blowing in the wind is a beautiful site that can be enjoyed all along our barrier island beaches. Sea Oats, which are protected by Florida state law are considered a grass and can grow up to six feet tall. Beyond the barrier islands, Sea Oats are found all along our Florida beaches as well as the coastal states of the southeast United States, eastern Mexico and some Caribbean islands.
Sea Oats naturally grow in coastal dunes and thrive in the hot sands of the fore-dunes and dune crest, where they are also susceptible to salt spray. The fact that they thrive in this high temperature, high salt environment is testament to their toughness and allows for very little competition from other plants. Their place in the dune system is very important for the preservation of Florida’s sand dunes in that their extensive root system helps to stabilize the shifting sands all along the dunes, preventing erosion.
The seeds of the Sea Oat is easily recognizable and sets on the plant in the early summer as a green seed and matures to a golden brown color by summers end. The seeds are dispersed by the wind, blowing off of the tall inflorescence, which then land and stay on the sands of the beach or enter the water and potentially travel for great distances by storms and ocean currents.
The seeds of Sea Oats provide a valuable food source for many songbirds all along the coast and provide both habitat and food for the endangered beach mouse. Please remember, it is against the law to remove Sea Oat plants or seeds from the beach dune system.
Sea Oats do not tolerate water-logging. They prefer coarse sands over organic soils. Plants trap sand at their base along the dune system. As the sand accumulates, plant roots and rhizomes rise and spread, perpetuating the rise and increase of the dune system.
Although quite a tough plant, urban encroachment of our Florida beaches has damaged Sea Oat populations. Urban runoff, marine pollution, foot traffic that damage plant roots and the operation of off-road vehicles in dune areas that disrupt plant roots and compact the sands can also contribute to the damage of these valuable plants.
Both Sanibel and Captiva provide some of the most beautiful beaches in the world and the protection of those beaches relies on the protection of the dune systems all along the islands. The dunes also help to protect valuable properties all along the coast while providing valuable habitat for all types of endemic animals. Sea Oats are key to this system. The beauty of the Sea Oats is unquestionable as well as their function. Our view to the Gulf of Mexico is quite remarkable and so is the view of the Sea Oats that add to the beauty of our natural, undisturbed beaches.