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Ask a Master Gardener: Aquatic Grasses for South Alabama Living Shorelines

BY: Jeremiah “Pepper” Woolsey, Mobile County Master Gardener

After you select the perfect lure or live bait and choose whether a circle or J-hook will be employed to entice your favorite fish species to bite, after you decide on the ultimate rod with just the right action to land them once hooked, and motored to your favorite go-to spot where they’re known to congregate, you’ve done all you can to raise the probability of a photo-worthy, plate-worthy fishing trip, right?

Not quite. Follow Marge Flanders’ admonition, “Think of the children!” No, not your little humans but rather the young fry of your favorite fish species. Our South Alabama wetlands and marshlands serve as habitat for “Mama Pesce” to lay her eggs, have them hatch, and pass to the critical stage as young fry. They can avoid predators while they take the time to mature among the grass. To become the “Big One,” they must first survive being little ones.

In addition to habitat for fish, water quality is improved by the capacity of aquatic grasses in our wetlands to filter nutrients and other elements from storm water, like nitrogen from fertilizer, sewage spills, and oils from roads and other surfaces. Nutrient overloading our waterways increases the risk of algae blooms and subsequent oxygen deprivation--not good for man nor fish.

As more development occurs, our coastal and riparian habitat tends to be diminished by armored bulkheads and seawalls, or rip rap (loose stones) dumped to reduce shoreline erosion. It is possible to both mitigate shoreline erosion and preserve habitat by creating living shorelines. Living shorelines use aquatic grasses at the shoreline or supplement seawalls with aquatic grasses planted in front of rip rap. The most environmentally friendly method is to use aquatic grasses alone as the shoreline. The second best is rip rap with aquatic grass in front. Supplementing seawalls with rip rap in front and aquatic grass in front of that is not a bad option when working with existing bulkheads and seawalls. The least environmentally sound configuration is bulkheads alone.

The selection among native aquatic grasses to form the basis of the habitat depends on whether the water is fresh, brackish, or salt. From fresh to salty brackish water, the recommended native marsh plants are black needle rush (Juncus gerardii), smooth cord grass (Spartina alterniflora), bulrush (Sedge or Typha family), cattails (Typha), pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata), and duck potato aka Wapato or common arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia). Pickerelweed is also a popular landscape plant for water gardens and ponds. It has the advantage of having showy purple (and sometimes white) funnel-shaped flowers that bees love; and, like duck potato, is edible.

It’s called pickerelweed because pickerel fish like to hide in it. The chain pickerel found in Alabama streams and rivers are likely no exception, although anglers are unlikely to catch them except in winter months. The young lance-shaped leaves, stalks, and flowers of pickerelweed can be eaten raw or cooked. The seeds can be roasted and are reported to have a very appetizing, nutty flavor.

Duck potato’s arrow-shaped leaves and flower stalks can be boiled and eaten like a green when young and unfurling. The tuber of the duck potato can be peeled, then boiled or baked, like an Irish potato. The flower petals can be eaten raw and used in salads. There are some thirty varieties of arrowhead (Sagittaria) and each one is edible.

For coastal shorelines, plants that make good habitats are seashore saltgrass (Distichlis spicata), sea oats (Uniola paniculata), morning glories (Ipomoea stolonifera), and bitter panic grass (Panicum amarum). To help stabilize further up the bank, just off the shoreline, native plants like live oak, loblolly pine, bald cypress, cabbage/sabal palm, among others, serve this purpose well as they are salt and wind tolerant.

One of the principal challenges in creating a shoreline habitat is the wave action from small watercraft in the rivers, and ships in the Bay. The force of the waves can uproot the young plants before they have time to establish. Some place a temporary protective barrier to break up the wave action before it reaches the shore.

Several living shoreline and wetland restoration projects are being undertaken in our area. Organizations like Dog River Clearwater Revival (DRCR), South Alabama Land Trust, Mobile Bay National Estuary Program, Dauphin Island Sea Lab, The Nature Conservancy, Mobile Baykeeper, Coastal and Marine Extension Mississippi State, and others, are working diligently to preserve our wetlands and coastal habitat by education and outreach initiatives, by holding fundraising events like SALT’s Annual Bald Eagle Bash, and DRCR’s Annual Mud Bottom Music Festival, and the Dog River Fishing Tournament among others, to raise money for improved watershed management.

Do consider “planting it forward” and adding a living shoreline to your waterfront property. We’ll all be repaid with continued enjoyment of the incredible natural beauty of our estuaries, rivers, bays, and deltas. The ducks, geese, heron, egrets, ibis, osprey, and eagles will benefit from added wetlands, not to mention the crustaceans that satisfy our collective gumbo addiction.

For more information, including permitting requirements (normally at no cost) see author Tom Herder’s Living Shorelines: A Guide for Alabama Property Owners published by Mobile Bay National Estuary Program

South Coast Engineers (Bret Webb and Scott Douglass), EcoSolutions in Daphne (Tom Hutchings), and MS State Marine Extension Service (Nigel Temple and Eric Sparks) are experienced with living shoreline installation along with many others.

Jeremiah “Pepper” Woolsey is a Mobile County Master Gardener, a Permaculture Designer, a South Alabama Land Trust (SALT) Supporter, and serves on the Board of Dog River Clearwater Revival (, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, dedicated to water quality in the Dog River Watershed.

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