I'll Try the Saltwort Please

Raccoon's use estuary edges as their private feasting zones 

Seagrasses and mangroves arent the only plants that have managed to colonize the super salty areas surrounding estuaries off the East Coast.  Within the Indian River Lagoon we have a range of halophytes – plants that like salt – that live just above the high tide mark. 

One of my personal favorites – okay two – are saltwort (Batis maritima) and glasswort (Salicornia sp).  What’s so interesting about them? 

Glasswort, also known as pickleweed here in the south

Both are succulent plants, so they have fleshy, even lobe shaped leaves that hold on to tremendous amounts of water.  Like most vascular plants living in salty environments they’ve adapted to deal with the inundation of sodium on a daily basis.  Some mangroves in Florida get rid of excess salt by exuding it through leaves where it dries as crystals.  In fact one of my favorite things to do with kids is suggest they lick white mangrove leaves to see if they are in fact salty!  But saltwort and glasswort actually store excess Na+ inside their juicy leaves. 

Saltwort, also known as turtleweed, how confusing!

Because of all this sodium when saltworts and glassworts are burned they can yield soda ash, which has been used for centuries in soapmaking and, drum roll please, glass making!  Hence the common name. 

Not too many animal species eat saltwort and glasswort because the salt content is so high.  But white tailed deer in this area have been spotted foraging and browsing saltwort fields.  Native Americans in Florida have historically eaten the plants and used the roots for several purposes, and the seeds are edible. 

I admit, I was more than a little squeamish when Brandon, a fellow naturalist, suggested I try a bit of the plants back in December.  Surprisingly, they taste like pickles!  Very salty (of course) but with a nice crunch at the end.  I’m sure MDs everywhere would rather we didnt start eating saltwort on a daily basis, but I like the idea that there are edible plants out there in the mangrove swamps. 

I tried to convince a few classmates in the marine lab to take a bite and only got one convert in the process.  I’m thinking it should be a compensatory initiation into estuary science!  Honestly, its not as crazy as it sounds.   Very much like eating crunchy seaweed salad from your favorite sushi place.

I suppose if I get lost in the wilds of the Lagoon any time in the near future I will be surviving off of raw oysters, Enteromorpha, and saltwort. 

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2 Comments to “I'll Try the Saltwort Please”

  1. Long ago — too long for me to remember well — these were pointed out to me to be edible. You’ve actually tried both? I have read two references to B. Maritima as having a strong odor but I have never detected any strong odor. What has been your experience?

  2. Hi Deane – I have tried both and they taste very similar in my opinion. I think glasswort tends to be saltier and more acidic (perhaps there is some ascorbic acid in the leaves). Its possible B. maritima has an odor, but I’ve never smelled it either. Though.. in my case.. I’m usually surrounded by mangrove swamp so it’s hard to compete with those odors! 🙂