A Seaside Plant Hangs on by Its Roots - conservation efforts on behalf of the sea-beach amaranth - Brief Article
Inside New York City, along the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, there is perfect habitat for elevated trains, boardwalks and apartment buildings. It's not where you would expect to find an imperiled species, especially one that prefers natural, undeveloped shoreline. But seabeach amaranth, a rare and capricious plant, flourishes on two beaches in the Big Apple.
"It's unpredictable," says Steve Young, a botanist with the New York Natural Heritage program.
Amaranth is one of the few annuals able to thrive in the shifting sands between the dunes and the high-tide mark. It may be abundant one year and virtually gone the next. Sometimes it disappears from a region for more than a century, only to mysteriously materialize once again.
Originally found from Cape Cod to the Carolinas, seabeach amaranth landed on the federal list of threatened species in 1993 after vanishing from two-thirds of its historic range. Today, it is still in trouble along much of the Atlantic coast, with only scattered colonies outside of New York.
Biologists scrambling to save-and to understand-this colorful plant with spinach-green leaves and bright red stems have learned that wild amaranth plays a crucial role in coastal dynamics.
Amaranth helps build beaches by hugging the ground-sometimes sprawling two or three feet across-and transforming blowing grains of sand into miniature dunes. "We were surprised to discover that amaranth growing in clusters can build dunes up to 12 feet in diameter and 1.5 feet high in just a few months," says Richard Hamilton, a South Carolina Department of Natural Resources biologist.
Over the past two years, Hamilton has transplanted nearly 4,000 amaranth seedlings from greenhouses to barrier-island beaches, trying to reestablish amaranth in South Carolina. It is not an easy job.
"Everything has to be just right for it to grow," says Hamilton. On one hand, the seedlings are hardy. They cope well with salt spray and poor soil and can obtain moisture from sea breezes and morning fogs. On the other hand, too much beach traffic kills them and so does submersion in salt water.
Competition also pushes amaranth right off the beach. The species prefers open sand, the barer the better. As soon as sea oats, American beach grass and other perennials begin to crowd into an area, amaranth steals away to take up life in a different place. "It's often the first plant into an area, and it's quick to leave when the habitat changes," says Hamilton. "It's a fugitive and a pioneer."
But this new frontier does not exist in places where humans have stopped the natural movement of sand. "Once a seawall goes up," says Hamilton, "the habitat is gone." Breakwaters, jetties, riprap-even putting up sand fences or sprigging with beach grass-keep amaranth away.
For years, experts thought the demise of natural beaches in New York and New Jersey led to the demise of wild amaranth in those states. But now, inexplicably, the plant is back in some areas.
"It was gone from New York for 40 years," says Young. "Then, in 1990, it suddenly reappeared."
A number of plants have also materialized for the first time in more than a century in New Jersey and Delaware.
Why does it come and go? "No one really knows," says Young. Hurricanes and northeasters often wipe out amaranth, but these same powerful gales may propel seeds from one region to another.
Some scientists also think amaranth seeds can lie dormant for a number of years-deep in the dunes or in ocean floor mud-until a storm stirs them up.
"Is it here all the time?" wonders Young, raising still another possibility. "Sometimes it seems all we do is put up a string barrier to protect nesting birds, and the next year amaranth pops up."
Young is cautiously optimistic about the future of seabeach amaranth. In the mid-1990s, the species was down to fewer than 200 plants in eight populations in New York. But last summer surveyors tallied a remarkable 150,000 amaranth plants in 17 different places along the shores of Long Island. Perhaps a beachside plant that can prosper in Queens-practically in the shadow of the "A" train-will have what it takes to survive the twenty-first century.
While researching this article, writer Doreen Cubie helped biologists plant amaranth seedlings on a barrier island off the coast of South Carolina.