Coastal restoration is a team effort

Published 3:21 pm Sunday, November 14, 2021

By Eric Sparks

MSU Extension Service

BILOXI, Miss. -— Coastal restoration has been a hot topic along the Gulf of Mexico coast for many years now.

One clear aspect of coastal restoration is that it’s a team effort that requires not only the coast, but entire watersheds. From reducing excess fertilizer usage and litter to increasing low-effort natural landscaping and pervious surfaces, there are many actions we can take anywhere to help restoration of coastal ecosystems.

An action that is often not considered but could help with coastal restoration is growing wetland plants specifically for use in restoration projects.

Some recent efforts to equip students and adult groups with knowledge and supplies to grow wetland plants for restoration projects have been successful. Several schools throughout coastal Mississippi and other states are growing wetland plants and learning about ecosystems through the Plan-It Marsh Program. Additionally, the Pearl River County Gardeners recently propagated out two species of salt marsh plants — smooth cordgrass and black needlerush — from seed at the Crosby Arboretum.

You may think you can’t grow these types of plants because you don’t have access to salt water. However, these “salt-loving” wetland plants don’t need salt water to survive and are typically grown in fresh water at nurseries. These plants have mostly just adapted to be able to tolerate salt water as a way outcompete less salt-tolerant plants. That is one reason why wetland plant diversity typically declines in saltier water.

One important consideration when using plants for restoration projects and, subsequently, when growing these plants, is to source material (seed, seedlings, etc.) as locally as possible. Research has shown that most of these plants are genetically diverse across the U.S. Gulf Coast, which means that plants of the same species in one area can be genetically unique to plants of the same species in another area.

There are many reasons why maintaining local genetic diversity is important. Reasons can range from disease resistance to how the plants grow in a specific area. For an example of why maintaining genetic diversity is important, look no further than the banana. Low genetic diversity of banana trees in farms and Panama disease led to mass die offs of bananas and nearly closed the banana industry. Since nearly all bananas were derived from the same strain, if one tree was susceptible to the disease, all of them were.

There is a wealth of great local information and guidebooks available through the MSU Extension Service to help get started with growing coastal wetland plants.

If you are interested in learning more, feel free to contact me, the director of coastal and marine extension with the Mississippi State University Extension Service and coastal ecology specialist with the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, at eric.sparks@msstate.edu or 228-546-1025.