Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography


with 22 comments


Click to enlarge.

In the wetlands of California’s Martinez Regional Shoreline on November 2nd of last year I came across the strange-looking (to me) plant shown here. I had no idea what it was, but when we were walking back to the car I noticed a woman coming toward us carrying a bunch of plastic buckets. On impulse I asked: “Are you a native plant person?” She said she wasn’t specifically, but it turned out she was indeed a biologist and knew a fair amount about the native species there. She identified my mystery plant as pickleweed. She added that its genus had changed and she couldn’t remember which of the two names that came into her mind is the current one. I looked it up later and found that the latest name is Sarcocornia pacifica (changed from Salicornia). I also learned that other common names for the plant are sea asparagus; perennial saltwort; American glasswort; and Pacific samphire, along with a folk-etymologized version of that, Pacific swampfire.

If pickleweed seems a strange name, I found the explanation for it in an article on a website from British Columbia: “Sea asparagus is edible and is sold in some stores, particularly seafood, local food, or specialty stores. It is picked wild and often pickled. It has a salty taste, and can be cooked in a variety of ways.” The Watershed Nursery website adds: “Pickleweed is a halophytic (tolerant of salty conditions)…. Salicornia species are being tested as a biofuel crop as it is composed of 32% oil and being a halophyte can be irrigated with salt water.”

Also strange is the disjoint distribution of this plant, which includes Long Island, where I grew up on the other side of the country from California.

Below is a closeup showing why this plant has traditionally been put in the goosefoot family (botanists now classify it as a member of the amaranth family).


Click to enlarge a bunch.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 6, 2017 at 4:45 AM

22 Responses

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  1. Wow that is a weird looking plant. If the midwest keeps piling salt everywhere every time we get a snowflake, we’re going to have to plant this along our roadsides!


    March 6, 2017 at 6:27 AM

    • That’s a funny line about piling salt everywhere every time you get a snowflake up there. Your proposal to cultivate this plant along your highways brought the phrase “symphony of samphire” into my mind.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 6, 2017 at 9:48 AM

      • Wow~I really like that. Symphony of samphire. Beautiful. Yes, the powers -that-be really overreact when there is a bit of snow. I understand, though. Once I was talking with the driver of a salt truck. He said that if he hears of an accident with injuries at an intersection he was responsible for the previous night, he can’t live with himself so he errs on the side of heavy salt. My heart really went out to him for saying that.


        March 8, 2017 at 7:15 AM

  2. I wouldn’t mind trying some pickleweed. This is samphire growing in Petone. https://passthesalt.co.nz/2014/12/13/searching-for-samphire/ Not sure if it is the same.


    March 6, 2017 at 7:01 AM

    • That’s a double coincidence, both because a species of this plant grows in New Zealand and because we spent Friday night in Petone. Given the great number of plants here that came from elsewhere, I originally assumed the species in your linked article is Salicornia europaea, but then I found this:


      Steve Schwartzman

      March 6, 2017 at 10:07 AM

      • By the way, the name Petone made me think of the French word for ‘pedestrian’ piéton, but again there’s no connection:


        Steve Schwartzman

        March 6, 2017 at 10:21 AM

      • If you had had enough time you could have foraged for samphire to go with the tomatoes.


        March 7, 2017 at 12:58 AM

        • Yes, we could have. Speaking of enough time, we have more of it on the Coromandel Peninsula than we bargained for. Heavy rain from late yesterday afternoon through this morning has closed both of the roads off the peninsula. We’ve been forced to spend another day in Whitianga but still don’t know if we’ll be able to make it to Auckland tomorrow for our flight home.

          Steve Schwartzman

          March 7, 2017 at 5:56 PM

          • Oh dear! NZ has provided earthquakes, fire, and now floods, for you. Fingers crossed you will get to Auckland in time for your flight.


            March 8, 2017 at 2:23 AM

            • Yay, we got off the peninsula yesterday morning, though it meant driving in more rain along curvy SH 25 while avoiding fallen rocks and other accumulated debris on the road. Yesterday I drove on the left, this afternoon on the right. We’re exhausted and glad to be at home where we can rest. Tally for the trip: 7300 km driven.

              Eve and I are so happy to have been able to visit you a second time.

              Steve Schwartzman

              March 9, 2017 at 9:39 PM

  3. Sea asparagus/samphire is sold on the North Norfolk (UK) coast in summer. I have never tried it but have seen the sales stands along the marshes and I hear it is a real delicacy.


    March 6, 2017 at 1:58 PM

  4. We have Salicornia here, not sure of the species. It grows on the seashore and also in inland salt marshes, the salt supplied by salty groundwater. Tastes great!

    jane tims

    March 6, 2017 at 7:24 PM

    • You’re the first commenter here who’s eaten (and enjoyed) samphire. Do you happen to know what species you have there?

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 6, 2017 at 9:57 PM

      • Hi. According to my field guide it’s Salicornia europea … local names are samphire greens and saltwort. I first ate it when I led a botany tour to Grand Manan Island, but I’ve eaten it many times since. Mostly as a nibble, but it can be used in salads and cooked as a green. It’s quite pretty, being transparent and having a reddish tinge. I think it is so ‘cool’ I put it as a species on the alien planet in my sci-fi series I am writing! Call it glasswort in the book! Jane

        jane tims

        March 7, 2017 at 8:28 AM

        • I expect the European species made its way over to the Maritime Provinces thanks to the British. Maybe you can start a campaign to promote cultivation and eating of saltwort.

          I missed a chance to try pickleweed in California, but I hope I get to sample one species or another before too long.

          Steve Schwartzman

          March 7, 2017 at 12:41 PM

  5. I’m thrilled to death. You’ve just made an identification much easier for me. If you search for Salicornia depressa at the wildflower.org or USDA sites, you’ll find the genus all along our coast. It also grows in coastal California and coastal New York. There is another species, Salicornia bigelovii, that also is found here, but I’m not at the point of being able to distinguish them. It’s interesting that the plant called “saltwort” here is quite different from the “glassworts.’ Yea, again, for scientific names.

    I came across some recently, down at Brazoria. Like you, I’d never seen anything quite like it. Here’s a closeup, and a view of a larger clump. I want to try again for a better photo of the big clump. I had to use my telephoto lens for this image because there was an alligator between me and the plants.


    March 7, 2017 at 8:01 AM

    • What? An alligator deterred you from getting close and using your macro lens? Okay, we’ll let you off the hook due to extenuating circumstances.

      You’ve given me another reason to visit the Texas coast, which I haven’t done since the spring of 2015 (as you recall), and even then too briefly.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 7, 2017 at 12:55 PM

  6. […] Pacific samphire. The plant grows in saline marshes, so that accounted for the “swamp.” Some parts of the plant turn reddish, so I figured that color metaphorically became the “fire.” As I imagined it, samphire […]

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