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Marsh Education Program Branches Out

Jun 12, 2018 | News

From Seeds to Shoreline® (S2S) usually ends, geographically, at the edge of the marsh. For three groups of students, however, the restoration effort expanded to beachfront dunes in 2018.

S2S is a student-based salt marsh restoration program coordinated by S.C. Sea Grant Consortium with partners at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service. Since the program’s inception in 2011, S2S participants have transplanted thousands of Spartina alterniflora seedlings grown in school greenhouses to South Carolina marshes. S. alterniflora is the dominant grass in the state’s salt-marsh environment as well as an ideal keystone species for understanding the rich estuarine environment it inhabits.

Students from Ocean Bay Middle School helped plant seabeach amaranth seedlings in the dunes at Huntington Beach State Park. Photo by Joey Holleman, S.C. Sea Grant Consortium.

Teachers participating in S2S bring their students and seedlings to marsh settings at the end of the school year for restoration day field trips. Mike Walker, an interpretive ranger at Huntington Beach State Park, has helped with S2S plantings at the park for years. After keeping a batch of seabeach amaranth (Amaranthus pumilus) seeds in his freezer for a decade, he asked horticulturist Kelley Nash at neighboring Brookgreen Gardens if she could germinate them.

Seabeach amaranth, once found along much of the eastern United States coastline, is a federally threatened species that grows in the wild only in South Carolina, North Carolina, and New York. Its habitat has been impacted by beachfront development and beach renourishment projects.

Nash worked her magic on the seeds, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service botanist April Punsalan provided expertise and assisted with obtaining federal permits to allow the planting.

Walker had dozens of seedlings ready to plant in May 2018. Groups from three Georgetown and Horry county schools – Carolina Forest High School, Ocean Bay Middle School, and Coastal Montessori Charter – headed from the marsh to the beach at the end of their restoration days. They dug holes in the loose sand at the foot of dunes near a park walkover, added water, and placed the seabeach amaranth roots in the holes.

Seabeach amaranth grows closer to the open ocean than any other vascular plant, yet its stalks are delicate, Walker said. He and Nash asked the students to gently pile sand slightly up the stalks to give extra support.

Just as Spartina root systems help protect the edges of marshes from erosion, seabeach amaranth roots help collect sand important to dune-building. Unlike Spartina, which is a rugged perennial grass that can survive for years, the seabeach amaranth is an annual plant. The seedlings planted in May won’t survive through the end of the year. But if they make it long enough to disperse seeds into the wind, those seeds could grow into new amaranth in 2019.