While tall grasses, like Spartina alterniflora, dominate the more frequently flooded lower elevations of a salt marsh, the high marsh areas, which are inundated less frequently, are home to an entirely different and interesting set of plants. Glassworts, in particular, are exceptionally colorful this time of year. Many people focus on the changing colors of the leaves of various deciduous trees as autumn arrives, but glassworts put on their own colorful fall display. Although almost completely green throughout the spring and summer, around this time of the year the plants turn a pink to red color.
Glasswort, newly emerged, green, and still largely unbranched (photo taken in early July).
Common glasswort turning red in the upper portions of a salt marsh dominated by Spartina alterniflora and Spartina patens.
Glassworts include a number of species in the genus Salicornia, and are easily recognized by their seemingly leafless, succulent stems, approximately 1/4 inch in diameter. They resemble fleshy club mosses or tiny, spineless cacti. Although some species of glasswort are predominantly unbranched, such as the perennial glasswort pictured in the comparison diagrams below, common glasswort, Salicornia maritima (featured here), has numerous succulent branches off each main stalk. In the spring, however, when the plant first emerges, it can be more difficult to distinguish between the two types because both species can appear as an assemblage of individual spikes. Although not obvious, glassworts do have leaves, which appear as tiny, opposite scales as each joint. The flowers and seeds are even more inconspicuous, as they are concealed beneath the scale-like leaves.
A diagrammatic comparison between common and perennial glasswort taken from the Field Guide to Tidal Wetland Plants by Ralph W. Tiner.
The Latin name Salicornia comes from “sal” meaning salt, and “cornu” meaning horn – a fitting name for a plant that has growth form that resembles horns and is adapted to saline environments. This salty name refers not only to the estuarine environments in which these plants are found, but also speaks to the salty taste of this wild edible. So salty, that I don’t enjoy eating more than a small nibble or two on its own. Adding bits of chopped glasswort to a salad, however, can add a pleasurable salty crunch to the dish. Although I have never tried it, various sources suggest adding bite sized segments of glasswort to a jar and covering them with vinegar. Seal the jar, wait about a month and you’ll have pickle-like hors d’oeuvres.