Florida saltwater grasses perform many functions in an unusually demanding environment. Saltwater grasses provide homes for fish and other wildlife and food for native birds. They hold sandy soil in tidal areas, diminishing erosion and increasing water-pollutant filtration. Both water and environmental management agencies actively encourage the planting of native grasses, while suppressing a large number of invasive non-native grasses that damage this unique balance of water and coastal land. Botany departments and county extension agencies also work hard to assist residential and recreational landscapers with grasses that tolerate high levels of salt in soil and spray.
Growing Conditions for Turf and Other Grasses
The challenges for coastal Florida landscaping include high heat (hardiness zones 8 to 10 b), high salt content in the soil and increased salt from wind-driven spray. For home lawns, parks and golf courses, a group of turf grasses can be classed as saltwater grasses because of their high tolerance. Zoysia, Bermuda and Seashore Paspalum grasses have all been developed to tolerate Florida coastal conditions. Seasure Paspalum grass can even tolerate being irrigated with water with a strong saline content.
Sawgrass (Cladrium jamaicense)
Florida saltwater grasses include both true grasses and grasslike sedges and rushes. For purposes of function, all are often called grasses. Sawgrass, for example, is the most common grassy plant in the Everglades. It provides food and shelter to birds and wildlife. Sawgrass can grow up to 10 feet high, although one common variety seldom exceeds 3 feet.
Maidencane (Panicum hemitomen)
Maidencane, also know as panic grass (referring to leaf and flower shape, not maidenly vapors) grows up to 6 feet tall in large-spread patches, either submerged in water or on dry land. It offers nesting materials and food to birds and small mammals along the edges of salt marshes.
Smooth Cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora)
While cordgrass is capable of reaching 7 feet in height, most stands are closer to 2 to 3 feet. Cordgrass and a companion plant, needlerush, are identified by the University of Florida as critical to the shore-holding and water-filtering capacities of Gulf Coast marshes. The University's wetlands studies further credit these Gulf marshes as providing safe nurseries for roughly 70 percent of Florida's fishes and crustaceans.
While coastal Florida presents some growing challenges, for some plants it is a perfect incubator. Most threatening to Florida's native saltwater grasses are invasive plants from other salty coastal areas. While Florida environmentalists point out that the "invasive" charge cuts two ways (native smooth cordgrass nurtures young shellfish and fish in Florida, but on the Pacific Coast wreaks havoc with oyster beds), near-tropical growing conditions foster out-of-control behavior in many transplants. Torpedo grass, para grass and West Indian marsh grass are only a few of the non-natives attempting to overwhelm native saltwater grasses.