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A Commentary on What’s New and Newsworthy

by Susan Holloway | Bio

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What Can the Pickleweed Teach Us about Biodiversity?

27 Sep 2021 9:20 AM | Gayle Marsh (Administrator)
  Pizzazz! Pickleweed stems turning red
in the fall
  Pickleweed in full bloom. Not exactly
corsage material!
       
When I think of biodiversity loss, I tend to focus on animals. The tragic decline of the Western Monarch for example. If I manage to think about plants, I attend to the beautiful or flashy ones like the Coastal Redwood. And rarely do I give a thought to fungi and microbes!

In this post I want to change that habit and focus on an inconspicuous and unappreciated plant, the pickleweed, which exists in an underrated ecosystem, the salt marsh. I think the example of the pickleweed can illustrate how every element of an ecosystem is an essential part of an interdependent network. The pickleweed not only illuminates the meaning of biodiversity but also points to ways we can support, protect, and restore the biodiversity of local ecosystems.

The scientific name for the pickleweed is Salicornia. It is a widespread genus of succulent, salt-tolerant plants that grow in salt marshes, on beaches, and among mangroves. Pickleweed is found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, as well as in southern Africa. 

Pickleweed takes salt water up through the roots and stores salt in the top “pickles.” In the fall this part turns red and falls off, ridding the plants of the salt.


What is a salt marsh?

Ridgway’s Rail

  The Pt. Reyes Salt-Marsh Bird’s Beak  
       
In the Bay Area pickleweed plants live in salt marshes. A key feature of a salt marsh is its exposure to tides that wash in and out twice daily. Depending on the time of day, the marsh can be submerged by salty water or left high and dry as the tide recedes. 

Marsh plants are distributed across different tidal levels depending on their ability to withstand the stress of daily immersion in saltwater. Eelgrass beds often grow in channel bottoms. They are essential in preventing erosion, increasing water clarity and quality, sequestering carbon, and proving food for other marine life.

Other vegetation occurs in at various levels above the mean sea level. For instance, cordgrass is found at the lowest elevations, while pickleweed typically grows on slightly higher ground. Not surprisingly, higher marshes are home to a greater number of plant species than the lower ones. Bay Area salt marshes are also home to the Ridgway’s rail and the California black rail, both endangered.


Why are salt marshes important?

Tidal marsh ecosystem

Let’s recall that removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is a crucial way of slowing climate change. In general, plants are carbon factories. They take CO2 from the air and make it into leaves and roots. It’s magic!

The only hitch is that plants typically release carbon when they decompose. However, certain plants are less problematic in this respect. For instance, large trees like Coastal Redwoods don’t release the carbon ensconced in their deeply buried roots.

Plants living in salt marshes are also great at retaining carbon. Marsh plants like the pickleweed decompose and stay locked in the watery environment of the marsh, where their carbon cannot be released into the atmosphere. 

An endangered
Salt Marsh
Harvest Mouse
á table

The complex relations linking carbon, the pickleweed, the Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse, and the Ohlone peoples illustrate a crucial fact about biodiversity.

Biodiversity is not just about the number of individual species that exist, but also about the processes that link all elements of the local ecosystem in an interdependent web.
Pickleweed is an important food source for native and endangered marsh animals such as the Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse. Waterfowl also eat pickleweed. Mice and birds aren’t the only ones that like pickleweed. In many societies around the world the pickleweed has been valued as a salty and crunchy vegetable. For the Ohlone people living in the East Bay, pickleweed was often eaten along with wild greens such as clover, poppy, miners’ lettuce, and milkweed. 


Bothin Marsh: Restoration in Progress

Over 90% of the Bay Area’s salt marshes have been developed over the last 100 years. However, restoration has become increasingly common as marshy areas are acquired by environmentalist groups and state agencies.  

Bothin Marsh is a 106 acre preserve along Richardson Bay between the Highway 101 bridge and the communities of Tam Valley and Almonte. The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and Marin County Parks are collaborating on a restoration of the marsh, the Evolving Shorelines Project.

A brief glimpse of the history of Bothin Marsh can lend insight into challenges to preserving and restoring a biodiverse ecosystem. 

Students waiting for commuter train at the new train stop on the Mill Valley line fronting the high school. November 1908. 

 

Shell middens dating from over 5,000 years ago confirm the longstanding presence of indigenous communities in the marsh area. At that time the marsh was much larger than it is today, extending into what is now Tam Valley. After incursion by the Spanish in the 1700s, the resident indigenous communities were nearly wiped out by widespread disease, forced labor, and other forms of mistreatment. In subsequent years, cattle were introduced to the area, competing for grazing space with deer and elk, which were also hunted by the settlers. Controlled fires, used by Coast Miwoks for fire suppression, were discontinued. And commercial logging began on Mt. Tamalpais. These activities altered the shape of the marsh, changed the tidal patterns, and upset the usual routes through which sedimentation occurred. In turn, these changes diminished the plant and animal life supported by the marsh.

In the 1840s homesteading was established along the marshes, and water was diverted for farms and household use. In the 1870s, a 4,000-foot-long railroad trestle was constructed across Richardson Bay, followed by a second trestle near Coyote Creek. Berms were built to contain fill intended to create space for development. The development never occurred but the berms and fill remain. Additionally, two creeks feeding into the marsh were re-routed into engineered channels, dramatically altering its hydrology. By the 1960s, the marsh was completely disconnected from the tides, and sediment from the watersheds was channeled into Richardson Bay instead of nourishing the marsh.

In 1981 the marsh area was acquired by the Marin County Parks and Open Space District. Over time, the berms have been breached in several places, supporting tidal action and increasing sediment supply. This has in turn created more middle to high marsh, which can support more diverse wildlife that the low marsh and mudflats.

In recent years, a new threat to the marsh has arisen in the form of sustained sea level rise. Changes in the depth and movement of water in Richardson Bay have caused wave-induced erosion along the edges of the marsh, causing much of it to be inundated during king tides. 

The history of Bothin Marsh illustrates what happens when the balance of an ecosystem that evolved and flourished for thousands of years is radically disrupted. In the case of Bothin, the mutually beneficial relationships of human communities with plant and animal life became a casualty of the genocide of its indigenous inhabitants followed by subsequent expansionist goals of developing the land for housing and financial gain.





Restoration in progress

  One idea for renovating the Bay Trail
   

At Bothin Marsh, efforts are underway to address the challenges posed by past alterations of the marsh ecosystem as well as rising sea levels. The project goals are to increase sedimentation to provide habitat for diverse plant and animal life and to prevent the marsh from inundation as the sea level continues to rise. In addition, the plan will preserve and enhance the recreational opportunities afforded by the Bay Trail. 

In phase one, trail resurfacing and bridge repairs are in progress to improve access to the existing Bay Trail. Small-scale adaptation measures such as creating marsh mounds are also underway, creating habitat for vegetation in high marsh areas.  

The second phase is still in the planning stages. The Bay Trail will either be elevated or moved to the edge of the marsh. Coyote Creek will be “unstraightened” and returned to a natural meandering waterway in order to increase the amount of sedimentation in the marsh. These measures and other are intended to accommodate two to four feet of SLR, currently projected to occur by 2060.  

Read the adaptation concepts report for all the project details, including plans for subsequent phases of the restoration project. A second report provides a detailed account of the history of the marsh, including old maps documenting all the changes that have occurred in the past two centuries.

Ecosystem change is inevitable, and we cannot expect the natural world to revert to a prior state. One comfort is that plants, animals (and people) have an amazing ability to adapt to new conditions. The pickleweed’s ingenious system for adapting to a salty environment by absorbing salt water into its expendable pickles is a case in point. Sometimes, however, extreme adaptation fails to maintain a balanced and viable ecosystem, necessitating human intervention. Finding this balance is one challenge for restoration efforts at Bothin Marsh.





What Can You Do?


Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino  

Nobody wants to stay locked in a place of pain. We want to see reconciliation. We want to see a world where we can see our culture uplifted even by institutions in the past haven’t done right by our people.
(Vincent Medina)

Support the Cafe Ohlone

Here’s your chance to sample pickleweed! Cafe Ohlone is slated to open in November in the Phoebe A.Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley. In addition to sharing the Ohlone culture and storytelling, the cafe will feature dishes using native ingredients like smoked trout with bay laurel-blackberry sauce.

Cafe owners Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino are eager to engage with the campus community, while also acknowledging the irony of locating their restaurant in a building named after a member of the Hearst family, whose acquisition of tremendous wealth in the mid-1800s came at the expense of local indigenous communities.   

Support a local organization

Become a member of one of the organizations engaged in the restoration of Bothin Marsh, such as the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The Parks Conservancy is active in fundraising, community engagement, and co-project management. Some of their projects include restoring the Crissy Field tidal marsh, and extending the trail system in Marin, including at Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands. In addition to the Bothin Marsh restoration they are presently working on a multi-year Redwood Renewal project at Muir Woods. 

Learn more about biodiverse regions of South America

Just 5% of the world’s population occupies 24% of the land surface that is home to 80% of global biodiversity. Although biodiversity is primarily supported in lands occupied by indigenous people, they are rarely included in global efforts to protect these fragile areas. This National Geographic article about the indigenous community living in the Yasuni National Park in northeastern Ecuador is particularly informative concerning efforts to support indigenous rights to self-determination, well-being, traditional knowledge, and a healthy environment.

Sign up for EFM classes on biodiversity

This year Environmental Forum of Marin is offering an array of great webinars on biodiversity. Learn how biodiversity and climate change are interlinked and why California is a globally significant biodiversity hotspot. Become familiar with the causes of biodiversity loss and explore the array of solutions already underway. The webinars are available on Zoom, so if you’ve missed one, contact Kim Rago (kimr@marinefm.org) for information on how to access it. And check out EFM’s advocacy classes to learn effective strategies for shaping environmental policies and practices.


That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Thanks very much to the participants at the September 9 EFM webinar called Biodiversity and Climate change: David Ackerly, Justin Robinson, and Mark Hertsgaard. Their inspiring presentations shaped the contours of this blog post! Thanks also to the great presentations by Rob LaPorte and Veronica Pearson on the recent EFM fieldtrip to Bothin Marsh. To view the webinar, contact Kim Rago (kimr@marinefm.org).


Thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book on wildflowers or visit their website for more stunning images of wildlife.



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