I am American Beachgrass

Call me Ammophila. Long, flexible stems, like strong limbs, withstand the force of powerful winds—winds that stimulate root growth, rhizomatous—a sprawling system to stabilize dunes. My clones and I anchor windblown sand, guard against the highest full moon tides that might otherwise flood the land. Dare to tread “barefoot” over my tall blades, and my gritty green leaves become daggers, laid on their edges. We live in a foredune community, closer to the sea than our inland neighbors.


American beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata)

To them, we are pioneers. We are “ecosystem engineers.” After we have established our colony, our flowering neighbors can take root, too, in this shifting sand dune community: Beach-pea, red raspberry, bristly gooseberry, poison ivy. Sometimes, I get the sense—through my auricles, ear-like lobes that do not listen—but receive information nonetheless, that golden heather or little blue stem, or tufts of reindeer lichens have grown here before, but they’re not here now. My ramets and I dominate the dunes.

Native to Maine, I have lived here perennially for the past three summers. I am hardy, salt-tolerant and adaptable. Terns return, every year, and nest here. Sometimes, I see the rare oystercatcher, or piping plover, but there are many gulls and a few short-eared owls; they soar high above my florets. Owls swoop down over my spikelets—never close enough to study more than a silhouette against a blue sky. Right now, my spikelets have reached an impressive height of fourteen millimeters, that is, when my stems stand upright. One might think that I lack subtlety but up close, I am not so easily seen. Look closely, and note that my flowers are not so obvious. This is a trait of strength—in my community. Weirdly enough, we do have a noneventful relationship with the sea rocket, its lobed leaflets resembling “rocket ships,” and we like that it’s not very abundant. Sea rocket typically gives an aggressive root reception to strangers—anyone not in the mustard family,—and this is not community gossip—we get along just fine. But the neighbor I mind the least—poison ivy. She/he/they—the pronouns elude me, keep the two-legged kind away and minimize the chances of getting trampled.


Path through beachgrass

Rays of sun revitalize me. But I am always a little rough and sandpapery. Supporting us, somewhere deep beneath all that shifts and blows, we adapt and send runners and build our defenses; we thrive even when no one knows. Together, we repair the damage done by trampling and storms. It may appear to others that we are too shifty, or that we “take over.” I’ve been called a “bulldozer,” but I don’t know what that means; I suppose it is a compliment. Our foundation is unlike—theirs. Ours is spread out, and spreading, rhizomatous, unseen so it cannot be buried or carried away with the winds.

If I were to dream, —and I do not dream, I might have some deeply-embedded geological urge to fear replacement. (Some of my neighbors might say that I overanalyze, but we are engineers, after all.) One day, perhaps, the two-legged rangers shall come and replace me with Virginia wild rye! Morphologically speaking, she may be similar in many ways—my inflorescence is not obvious—and I am hairless; she has a hairy inflorescence!


Beachgrass along stream bank, Kettle Cove State Park

For coastal management resource information on American beachgrass in the Northeast, click here for NRCS Plant Materials Program – Coastal & Shoreline plants. For more technical information on coastal sand dune coastal management topics, click here for the Maine Natural Areas Program.  For two scholarly journal articles on Ammopila breviligulata (American beachgrass), see Cheplick’s discussion paper on “Patterns in the Distribution of American beachgrass,” in Plant Ecology and “Non-target effects of invasive species management,” (Zarnetske, Seabloom and Hacker, 2010) in Ecosphere.

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