Ocean Views: Purple Haze, Marsh Rosemary, Sea Lavender

Thu, 09/13/2012 - 2:54pm

If it is September on Block Island then it is time to bathe summer-tired feet in the soothing mud of a salt marsh. Many of the island’s September visitors will flock to our sand/mud flats and tidal marshes to glimpse shorebirds headed south after their breeding season in the north. Yes, ruddy turnstones, American golden plovers, whimbrels and the occasional little blue heron are alluring; but it will be the amazing salt- and sand-tolerant marsh plants that beckon for notice.

A typical walk at the wrack line along any edge of the New Harbor (a.k.a. Great Salt Pond) will reveal the strangely succulent plant glasswort. Sour and edible, glasswort is a favorite food of geese and can be used in the making of pickles. Lining the edge of the inter-tidal landward reach are the now-mature spartina grasses. Brilliant green and lush in early July, the spartina grasses in late summer are adorned with golden seed heads — a wending edge between water and land, looking like a nature-made Cristo installation. And for something more showy, look landward toward pools of fresh water just grazing the high tide line and you may discover a ring of rose mallows: pink and white and magenta. These large flowering perennial plants are easily identified as belonging to the genus hibiscus.

It is, however, the purple mist of sea lavender that truly heralds late summer. This beautiful — and yet subtle — perennial rings the Great Salt Pond in early September. At first glance the plant may look wiry and tumbleweedish, but look closely and one will see hundreds of dainty and tiny purplish flowers on each branching stem. Also known as marsh rosemary, this little posy is subtly fragrant and insect pollinated. Amazingly this plant does best when it is located where it gets daily inundations of salt water.

A favorite of florists, the garden-cultivated sea lavender holds its shape and color when placed in a bouquet. Likewise, wildstock sea lavender remains handsome if placed in a floral arrangement, but don’t do it. In Rhode Island (and many other states) sea lavender is protected by law and must not be picked. The plant must stay in place so that when the seeds mature the wind can disperse them, and when the plant dies back the root can stay ensconced in its tidal substrate to regrow and bloom again to usher in next year’s late summer. Go to the Ocean View Foundation Facebook page to see more photos of Block Island salt marsh plants.

The following events and Ocean View Foundation programs will provide opportunities to enjoy the subtle, stationary, soothing and restorative aspects of a Block Island September and offer views of the sea lavender that is best admired in place.

Sept. Tuesdays: Bird & Flower Walk at Andy’s Way – 9/11 at 9 a.m.; 9/18 at 4 p.m.; 9/25 at 11 a.m.

Sept. 7: at 7:30p.m. Night Sky Viewing at Hodge Preserve, Corn Neck Road

Sept. 15: 9 a.m. – noon Block Island Beach Clean-up

Sept. 15: New Sea Lavender Moon

Sept. 22: 10:49 a.m. Autumnal Equinox a.k.a. first day of fall.

Throughout September: The constellation Orion can be seen in the pre-dawn sky as it returns to chase the constellation Scorpio out of the night sky.