"Sea oats" (Uniola paniculata
L.) is a type of coastal grass found along the mainland coast and barrier islands of the United States
, from Virginia through Florida, continuing west along the Gulf Coast
through Texas and south to Tabasco, Mexico
. It is also widely distributed in the Bahama islands
and occurs on some sandy areas of the northwestern coast of Cuba
. Scientifically speaking, it is genus Poaceae
in the Gramineae
(or grass) plant family.
The common name of this plant comes from its striking resemblance to genus Avena sativa, or agricultural oats. The seed-bearing stalks of the sea oats fade from green to tan as the seeds mature in preparation for their distribution by winds and wildlife. The nomenclature for this species takes a plural form even when referring to a singular organism; there is no "sea oat" in much the same way that there is no "grit" in a bowl of grits.
Sea oats is the primary dune building grass in the southeastern US, and plays a key role in maintaining the physical dune environment by trapping and binding windblown sand, forming mounds of sand which increase as the plant's extensive root and rhizome system responds with increased growth. The roots even grow runners to the surface so that they can stay ahead of the potential erosion by waves. Sea oats dominates the most exposed areas of the dune where soil moisture is low. It tolerates drought, salt spray and rapid sand burial. Sea oats also serves a role in supporting the diversity of marine life by providing food for coastal birds, insects and small mammals like the threatened southeastern beach mouse.
Sand dunes are the coast's front line of defense from wind, water, tropical storms and hurricanes. Without the dunes, the damage that would occur during storms and hurricanes, particularly in developed areas, would be catastrophic. While not endangered, sea oats is legally protected since it is vital in maintaining the fragile beach ecosystem and the natural barriers that protect valuable real estate. Picking sea oats is illegal in Florida, Georgia and most other states where the plant is native.
Recent comparative research into genetic variations of sea oats found in North Carolina and Louisiana has suggested that it may be possible to engineer a superior breed of sea oats. Researchers at the University of Florida and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection are working together to develop a "super sea oats" through cross-pollination, with the goal of selecting sea oats with superior capacity for root growth, thereby increasing dune stability.
Some lovely pictures of sea oats can be found at http://www.sea-oats.com