Florida Wildflowers: Seaoats
“Seaoats are important dune builders and protect beach dunes from erosion. It is unlawful in Florida to destroy or take this grass.” – “Florida Wildflowers: a Comprehensive Guide” by Walter Kingsley Taylor
“It shall be unlawful for any person to cut, collect, break or otherwise destroy sea oat plants, Venus’s-flytrap plants or any part on public property or on private property without the owner’s consent. Any person violating the provisions of this section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be fined not more than two hundred dollars or imprisoned not more than thirty days nor less than five days. Each violation shall constitute a separate offense.” – SC Code § 16-11-590 (2013)
Seaoats (Unicola paniculata) are perennial grasses, often clumped and with vast root systems, that can grow over six feet tall that are found throughout the state in coastal uplands and beach dunes. The flat, inch-long flowers (spikelets), which are slightly purple or the color of straw, blooms throughout the year.
Seaoats can be found along the coasts and on barrier islands along the eastern seaboard from Virginia to Florida. Seaoats are very tolerant of salt spray. They are also very heat and drought tolerant and green until late in the summer. While the conditions under which they thrive reduce encroachments from other plants, beachfront development is a primary threat. (As you can see in the Florida state park photo below, developers, dune buggy enthusiasts, and others are likely to write the plant off as a weed.)
Some people like using them as accents in flora arrangements or as the focus of dried arrangements–one reason why some areas classify the grass as a threatened or endangered species as well in addition to being vital to soil stability within its habitats. They not only protect dunes year around but are an important factor in protecting coastal areas from the erosion associated with tropical storms. Restoring seaoats often becomes an important part of dune restoration programs.
Seaoats provide food for songbirds, burrowing owls, mice and marsh rabbits. While the grass produces numerous spikelets, these don’t generate a lot of viable seed. Fortunately, the seeds don’t have any important commercial value.
“What is so tantalizing about sea oats, making one wish to break the law to have sea oats in their own garden? For starters, they have a striking appearance growing and swaying in the slightest breeze. The decorative plumes (seed heads) are often dried and placed in floral arrangements, or displayed alone as a focal point. Sea oats are quite easy to have without breaking the law, but few people are aware seeds and/or plants may be bought legally from nurserymen licensed by the state of Florida to propagate them. These nurseries supply sea oat plants to local, state and federal government agencies for dune restoration after hurricanes; the nurseries are allowed to sell them to the public as well.” – Darius Van d’Rhys
Seaoats are edible (browned or used as a cereal), but if you want to try them, you have to grow your own. Note that the plant is not the same as Inland Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) that often grows as a ground cover in open areas and is found in northern states as well as the southeast.
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