Part of describing a locale in a novel is mentioning the green stuff outside the car window. Oaks and Pine trees and flowering shrubs are usually obvious. But what about the wildflowers and grasses?
I once knew a man who knew what every single piece of green stuff was, whether it grew in a forest, savannah, marsh, or coastal area. When he led tours, I was there as he not only named and described every plant and its seasonal cycle but told us how to know one plant from another.
If there had been a test, I would have flunked. Even if I’d crawled through it, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between Bluebunch wheatgrass and rough fescue.
I have wildflower guides for most of the areas I write about. I’ve found others online. But occasionally, I come across (in my writing research) a place where my characters will interact in some way and realize that I can’t be sure what all the green stuff is.
Many state, federal, and private wildlife areas and private preserves list the specialists in charge of interpretation. They have been a godsend. For some books, I’ve asked about the prominent plants one sees when driving through a place. In others, where there are, say, Longleaf Pines and other trees that depend on fire, I’ve asked specialists what order the smaller understory plants return after a fire.
I owe a great debt to specialists who will take time to field questions from a novelist, some of which take quite a few pages to answer. I always try to note down their names and organizations and mention them in each book’s acknowledgments. It’s my kind of thank you and also a way of saying that I’m a writer and not a biologist.
“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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During the Spring and Summer, hikers throughout Glacier National Park report being enchanted by the colorful profusion of wildflowers from McDonald Valley to Granite Park to the Belly River Valley. For years, I counted on Guide to Glacier National Park by George C. Ruhle and Plants of Waterton-Glacier National Parks by Richard J. Shaw and Danny On for identifying just what I was seeing along the trail.
Sad to say, both of these books are out of print and relatively hard to find. The pages of my old wildflower book are now a loose-leaf collection of sheets; the same would also be true of Ruhle’s book if it were not spiral bound.
Last year, Mountain Press Publishing came out with a wonderful replacement for the book by Shaw and On: Wildflowers of Glacier National Park and Surrounding Areas. Written by botanists Shannon Fitzpatrick Kimball and Peter Lesica, the book features beautiful photographs and layperson friendly details.
A botanist for 15 years, Kimball has served as a consultant for the park. Lesica is also the co-author (with Debbie McNeil) of A Flora of Glacier National Park, Montana and other books based on his 25 years as a Montana botanist.
Published in April 2010, this 260-page guide is an easy-to-use wonder for Glacier’s visitors from Red Bus tourists to casual hikers to ardent backpackers and climbers. The book is available from Amazon and through the Glacier Association. Like my earlier book, this one also groups flowers by color—a very handy technique.
Readers of Glacier Park Magazine will also enjoy Kimball’s article “The Healthy Rose” in the magazine’s Spring 2011 issue.