Shirley Heinze Snapshot 3: The Great Marsh, June 1, 2023

By Dale K. Nichols (Board Member)

Dear friends of Shirley Heinze Land Trust:  This is the third in a series of “snapshots” featuring our Beverly Shores/Great Marsh preserve.  It will focus on the types of plants that can be found in our Great Marsh properties, those whose seeds we harvest for planting in the fall, and volunteer opportunities over the course of the season as part of our seed gathering activities.

The Great Marsh is an ecologically diverse habitat, with over 300 documented plant species on our portion of the marsh alone.  While I am not a botanist, I have picked up a fair amount of information on the subject over the years from Shirley Heinze stewardship staff, and I will share some of it with you now.

Marshes are wetland ecosystems characterized by the presence of low-lying areas with a high water table.  They provide a unique habitat for a variety of plants that have adapted to the wet and nutrient-rich conditions, and to the low oxygen levels typical of waterlogged soil.

Botanists have adopted a number of different ways to categorize plants with like characteristics.  For purposes of this overview, I will use the following groupings for plants commonly found in marsh habitats, including the Great Marsh:

  • Sedge: Sedges belong to the family Cyperaceae.  They are grass-like plants with triangular stems, which are solid and typically have edges that are sharp or rough.  (Hence the adage “sedges have edges.”)  They have leaves that are long and narrow, arranged in three rows, and flowers that are typically small and inconspicuous, arranged in spikelets.
  • Grass: Grasses belong to the family Poaceae and are characterized by their narrow leaves with parallel veins.  They have round, hollow stems and produce flowers in spike-like structures called inflorescences.
  • Reed: Reeds are perennial plants that also belong to the family Poaceae, but whose stems are usually jointed and typically grow in dense stands.
  • Rush: Rushes belong to the family Juncaceae.  They are also grass-like plants, but they have round, solid stems without joints.  Their leaves are typically cylindrical and have parallel veins, and they often have inconspicuous flowers that are arranged in clusters.
  • Forb: Forbs, also known as herbaceous plants, refer to non-woody flowering plants that are not grasses or grass-like.  Forbs encompass a wide range of plant species, including wildflowers, perennials, and biennials.  They typically have broad leaves and produce showy flowers that attract pollinators.
  • Shrub: Shrubs are woody plants that are generally smaller in size than trees but larger than forbs.  They have multiple stems arising from the base and lack a single dominant trunk.  They can have broad leaves, needle-like leaves, or even modified leaves like spines, and can produce flowers, fruits, or berries, which contribute to their ecological value.
  • Fern: Ferns are a group of plants that reproduce via spores rather than seeds.  They are characterized by their feathery or lacy leaves, known as fronds, which unfurl from coiled structures called fiddleheads.
  • Vine: Vines are climbing or trailing plants that lack structural support and rely on other plants or structures for climbing.

SHLT’s Great Marsh landholdings consist of about a mile-long band of wetlands adjoining the north side of Beverly Drive.  Stewardship staff has been engaged in a multi-year effort to restore these properties to their native state.  The process involves first controlling invasive plant species (such as reed canary grass, cattails and phragmites) that have choked out other plants; collecting seeds during the growing season from desirable species already present on parts of the property; and then, in the late fall, planting those seeds in areas that have been cleared of invasives.

Of the 300+ species of plants found in the marsh, our seed collection efforts have focused on about 30-40 that are considered “high value,” either as pioneer species that will pave the way for other plants to grow, or as plants that are particularly well-suited to the marsh environment and that will contribute to ecological diversity.  The seed collecting season typically runs from late June to mid-October.  Early collections include spring cresses and fox sedge.  This is typically followed by species like blue joint grass, rattlesnake mannagrass and soft reed in July, with harvesting of various other sedges, Great Angelica, blue flag, and dark green rush beginning in August.  Forbs like cardinal flower, great blue lobelia, monkey flower, blue vervain, and marsh milkweed are generally ready by late August, with sensitive fern, hop sedge, various fall asters, and the berries of shrubs like swamp rose and chokeberry typically harvested at the end of the growing season.

Members of the Shirley Heinze stewardship staff spend many hours collecting seeds each season, but they are highly dependent on the efforts of volunteers to supplement their own in order to obtain seeds in sufficient quantity to speed along the marsh restoration process.

I know from my own time in the Great Marsh that past volunteers have found seed collecting to be a very rewarding experience.  Volunteer opportunities over the course of the season will be posted on the Shirley Heinze website.  If you would like to spend some time in the great outdoors as part of a highly worthy cause, please consider joining us!