Summer on the salt marsh

Salting is the Essex name for a salt marsh. Essex has the longest coastline of any English county with six tidal estuaries and innumerable tidal creeks. Every estuary and creek of the Essex coast is fringed with saltings. They are called saltings because at least as far back as the Bronze Age the people of Essex have made salt there. Salt is still produced on the Essex coast at Maldon.

The Salt marsh is a very special habitat that exists between the land and the sea. Sometimes it is dry land and sometimes it is under the sea. A place of extremes and contradictions. While submerged under the sea every day, fresh water is scarce and plants must protect themselves from dehydration. It is created by the tides, the wind and the plants that grow there. It provides the perfect protection of the land from the sea. One of the only truly wild places on the planet.

Essex Saltings flooding
Essex Saltings with the tide is coming in

The plants of the salt marsh are very special too. They are all uniquely adapted to life in this constantly changing landscape. While saltings are a rare habitat because they only form in low lying coasts, most plants found there grow abundantly.

Marsh Samphire Salicornia spp
This is probably the best known plant of the saltings. It has adapted to life on the marsh by developing fleshy succulent green stems and losing it’s leaves. It grows prolifically in the mud lining the myriad creeks that drain the salt marsh. Marsh Samphire is a pioneer trapping the silt carried in by the sea to create the salt marsh. It is best not to disturb the roots of this plant and only harvest the top part of the plant. It is in season from late July to late August.

Marsh Samphire
Marsh Samphire on the creek edge

Sea Purslane Halimione portulacoides
Sea Purslane is a low growing shrub found on the higher parts of the salt marsh, often forming a continuous carpet along the base of the sea wall. It has oval or pear-shaped, grey-green fleshy leaves and small spikes of fleshy flowers and fruits. These are the parts that are eaten, the stems being woody. It has a similar growth form to other small shrubs like heather and lavender, so take only the young shoots and don’t cut into the old growth when harvesting. It can be gathered most of the year except for the depths of winter.

Sea Purslane shoots
Young shoots of Sea Purslane

Annual Sea Blite Sueda maritima
Sea Blite is a short, narrow, upright plant with a thin, branching, woody stem hidden by upright, narrow, soft, fleshy leaves. It is grey-green in colour but often is flushed with red. It grows on the more open areas of the salt marsh, mixed with the Marsh Samphire on the creek edges and also in bare muddy areas higher up the marsh. Harvest the tender tips of the stems. It is in season from July to September. There is a related plant, Shrubby Sea Blite Sueda fruiticosa, which is rare in the UK. This is occasionally found on salt marsh but is more common on shell and shingle banks. It looks like Annual Sea Blite but is a small woody shrub about 1m tall.

Sea Blite Flowering
Sea Blite coming into flower

Sea Aster Aster tripolium
Sea Aster has a basal rosette of long, narrow, fleshy green leaves with a pointed tip. From the centre it produces a flowering stem which grows to the height of the high tide so that the flowers are held above the water level when the tide is in. The flowers, which flower in August, look like Michaelmas Daisies, with a yellow central disc and purple ray florets round the outside. Sea Aster grows across the main part of the salt marsh. The young fleshy leaves are the part to harvest and can be collected from both the basal rosette and the flowering stems without disturbing the plant too much. Sea Aster is in season from June to September.

Sea Aster rosette
Basal rosette of young Sea Aster leaves

Sea Arrow Grass Triglochin maritima
Sea Arrow Grass as the name suggests looks like a grass. It forms large clumps, that can develop into rings, of narrow, dark green, fleshy, grass-like leaves up to 30cm tall. The leaves are flat on the upper surface and rounded on the lower. They have a distinctive spicy taste reminiscent of coriander. The flowering stems are round with a short spike of green flowers about twice the length of the leaves. Sea Arrow Grass is in season from June to mid August.

Sea Arrow Grass clump
Clump of Sea Arrow Grass in flower

Sea Beet Beta maritima
Sea Beet is a tall bright green plant that looks like a spinach plant that has got out of control. This is because it is the parent plant of the tamer spinach beet (also chard, beetroot and sugar beet). It scrambles in a disorderly heap up sea walls and also on sand dunes and shingle banks, places with good drainage above the high tide mark. it tastes like an intense spinach. The young leaves are the best part to harvest as it is more fleshy than spinach and the older leaves become tough, leathery and bitter tasting. It is in season from May to July but you might find some tender shoots later in the year.

Sea Beet
Young Sea Beet

There are many other good edible plants on the salt marsh which are less abundant than the ones above such as Sea Wormwood, Golden Samphire, Grass Leaved Orache, Common Orache, Sea Spurrey and so on. In fact nearly all of the plants that grow on the salt marsh are good edibles apart from the Sea Lavenders which are very bitter tasting and the grasses which are very tough and fibrous.

When foraging on the salt marsh tread carefully, harvest sustainably and keep an eye on the tides. Only pick what is abundant, pick from the larger patches, don’t disturb the mud and only pick what you can make use of.