The common name for this organism is saltgrass.  The scientific name is Distichlis spicata var. stricta.  Saltgrass is a low stiff perennial, 4-16 inches high.  This grass has straight, vertical stems with leaves tapering to sharp points and arranged in two opposite rows.  It reproduces by seed and by sending out long underground horizontal rootstocks approximately 6 inches deep.  This vigorous, asexual reproduction results in large circular clones of genetically identical individuals where saltgrass recolonizes previously flooded playa margins.  The grass flower is yellowish, short and narrow. 


Salt grass has both male and female plants.  The male plants only bear stamens and the female only pistils.  

                                    (Salt grass plant:  left: female right: male) 

     Taxonomists believe that two varieties of this species exist. The variety spicata is distributed along the Atlantic and Pacific coastal regions and Gulf of Mexico.  The variety stricta is found in the interior of North America.  Many authors do not agree on how the two varieties differ, for example, Beetle (1943)  put all varieties of saltgrass into one category or taxonomic unit and believed there was no difference ( Atwood, Goodrich, Higgins and Welsh, 720).   Although there may not be much difference in the appearance of the two varieties, it is possible that they may vary genitically due to geographic differences between maritime climates, and interior climates. 


Saltgrass lives in areas where there are salt marshes.  The grass forms a single species community and often appears as dense carpets covering the Great Salt Lake playa.  

(illustration from:  Albee, Goodrich & Schultz, 1988)

Salt grass can also grow in moister zones of the upland desert shrub community and is frequently found associated with greasewood.  On the Great Salt Lake, salt grass can be seen in a distinct  zone, which is above the pickleweed zone with slightly lower salinity.   

DESCRIPTION: Special Characteristics

    Saltgrass requires a good supply of water and it grows rapidly in areas where the soil salinity is between 0.1%-1.5%.  This plant can tolerate salinity of up to 3%.  The way that saltgrass has adapted to the high amount of salinity is by having salt secreting glands on the surface of its leaves.  These glands secrete the extra salt taken up by the roots and delivered to the leaves by the vascular system of the plant. Salt crystals on the surface of the leaves can be observed through the use of a hand lens or microscope.  Moreover, the saltgrass has a special type of photosynthetic mechanism called C4 photosynthesis, which allows it to be efficient in how it accumulated carbon dioxide and loses water from its leaves (Harrison, 3). 

IMPORTANCE OF ORGANISM: What does it eat and what eats it?

     Saltgrass is an ecological producer, it uses light energy from the sun to power the synthesis of organic compounds.  Saltgrass is an important food source for the birds and insects of the Great Salt Lake.  It provides food for the meadow vole and provides shelter for the spiders, grasshoppers and other insects of the Great Salt Lake.  Saltgrass forms large dense areas of grass which are used by animals to hide from predators and in which  to nest .  For example, the Savanna sparrowand the meadow vole use the saltgrass zone for hiding from predators such as the northern harrier.  The meadow voles make extensive tunnel systems in the saltgrass zone where they hide, and in the spring they eat the young grass shoots.. 

 Harrison, T., September 23, 1993.  The Salty Shores of Great Salt Lake: A Natural History.   pp. 3, Salt Lake City, Utah. 
Atwood, N.D., Goodrich, S., Higgins, L.C., and Welsh, S.L., 1987.  “A Utah Flora,”  Great Basin Naturalist Memoir #9, pp. 719-720. Utah.
    Albee, Goodrich and Shultz, 1988.  “Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Utah,” Utah 
                                        Museaum of Natural History, pp. 82.  Utah.
    Murray, Ann, 1999. (11 Oct., 1999)
    Murray, Ann, 1999. (11 Oct., 1999)
    College of Agriculture.  "Arizona Range Grasses."  1997. (11 Oct., 1999)


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