Salt Marshes Part 3: Edible
As we’ve seen in Parts 1 and 2, PEI’s salt marshes are important both ecologically and historically. In this last part, let’s look at some of the cool adaptations and edibility of salt marsh plants!
If you ever find yourself stranded in a salt marsh, you shouldn’t go hungry. In addition to the fin-fish, shellfish and waterfowl around, the ground under your feet will be full of edible (and tasty!) plants. That they can grow here at all is remarkable. Imagine tossing a bucket of salt water onto your garden twice a day, or trying to get something to grow in salt-laden soil. Salt is lethal to most plants, but some not only tolerate it, they thrive in salty habitats. The term for these salt-lovers is ‘halophytes’.
Halophytes deal with salt in several ways. Some – such as the Cordgrasses (Spartina spp) featured in Parts 1 and 2 – have special glands in their leaves that collect and remove excess salt. If you look closely at their leaves, you can often see excreted salt crystals on the surface. Others – such as Sea Glasswort (Salicornia maritima, Photo 1) – accumulate salt within fleshy leaves.
By keeping the concentration of salt inside their leaves slightly higher than that outside, they ensure water is always flowing into rather than out of the plant through osmosis. Other adaptations of some salt marsh plants include a thick outer covering (cuticle) and specialized metabolism (C4 photosynthesis), both of which reduce water loss. Pores in plant leaves (stomata) that allow exchange of gasses may also be partially covered to further reduce water loss. Finally, some plants corral excess salt in expendable parts (salt bladders) that are dropped once full.
Given all this work to manage salt, it should be no surprise that these plants have salty flavours ranging from mild to intense. Here's some examples:
Found in the higher, drier sections of the salt marsh, Scotch Lovage (Ligusticum scoticum) is in the mild category with a flavour like a cross between celery and parsley. The entire plant is edible, but I usually just eat the leaves (raw or cooked) and seeds (which can be used as you would celery seed or fennel). I find it pairs well with eggs, chicken, and fish, as well as tomato-based dishes (hint: try it in salsa!). Scotch Lovage is a member of the Carrot Family (Apiaceae) which includes some very toxic species (including Spotted Water Hemlock, Cicuta maculata), so be sure of your identification before trying!
A little closer to the water than Scotch Lovage is Thin-leaved Orache (Atriplex prostrata). You may find this plant looks a bit like Lamb’s-quarters (Chenopodium album), which is in the same family. Like Lamb’s-quarters, Orache has a flavour similar to spinach, though with some salty notes. The entire plant is edible and can be eaten raw or cooked. I find the stems can be a bit tough and prefer to stick to the leaves, which are a very nice addition to salads. We have six different Oraches on PEI and identification to species can be difficult. Fortunately, all are edible.
Closer still to the water is Sea-blite (Suaeda maritima). This is one of the salt marsh succulents, and is able to survive below the high tide mark. In the same family as Orache (Photo 2), Sea-blite’s flavour is milder but intensely salty. The entire plant can be eaten raw or cooked; if you find it too salty, cook it in several changes of water.
Closest to the water and sometimes growing alongside Sea-blite (Photo 3), is Glasswort (aka Samphire, Salicornia maritima). I recently learned the Acadian name for this is ‘titines de souris’ (mouse tits), which I think is excellent! Like Seaside Plantain (Plantago maritima, July 28), Glasswort is harvested commercially and sold in farmers’ markets on the mainland. It has a lovely crunch, with a mild, salty flavour and can be eaten raw, cooked or pickled. In fall, Glasswort turns a brilliant red, making it stand out in the marsh