Autumn Abstraction: The Salt Flats

Virginia glasswort (Salicornia depressa) ~ Christmas Bay, Brazoria County, Texas

Limited in Texas to coastal counties, this low-growing glasswort is a member of the goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae), which includes mostly succulent herbs. In autumn, it provides a splash of color across the salt flats, turning from green to yellow, orange, and red as the season advances.


Comments always are welcome.

48 thoughts on “Autumn Abstraction: The Salt Flats

  1. I can only imagine the gash of colour formed by a great number of these plants. It must be quite spectacular.

    1. It can be eye-catching, for sure. The color change is just starting now, but like a northern leaf-peeper, I’m hoping for perfect conditions in the coming weeks. Sometimes these plants dry out before the color becomes vibrant, just as leaves can dry and fall without changing color.

    1. These certainly do brighten up the flats. It was autumn when I first saw them, and the contrast between their color and the mud was remarkable. Last year’s biggest patches aren’t looking so spiffy, so I’m on the lookout for some new ones.

    1. Many of the plants that grow on the mud and salt flats are unusual, at least in the sense that they hardly resemble our traditional garden flowers. This one has tiny flowers, but they certainly wouldn’t make much of a bouquet. Next year I’ll have to try for a photo of them, but this will do for now. They hardly look like flowers, do they?

  2. Because Texas doesn’t have large-scale fall foliage (except for a few places like Lost Maples and McKittrick Canyon), it’s good to make people aware of the smaller-scale fall foliage that we do have, which often gets under-appreciated or overlooked altogether.

    1. It’s especially easy to overlook some of these low-growing marsh-and-mud plants when they’re still green. I’m hoping that a combination of rain and cooler weather will lead to the kind of dramatic color change these can produce. Cooler weather also may mean fewer mosquitoes and more sluggish alligators, which makes hiking through the flats to find them a more appealing proposition.

    1. It does look a bit like those bubble lights we used to put on our Christmas trees. Someone should make sets of lights like this for people who enjoy decorating trees with a natural theme. The image did turn out well, given that the stem was only about four inches long and I practically had to put my nose in the mud to get its photo!

    1. I saw some photos and information on Samphire when I was making sure I had this one identified correctly. One of the common names of this one is ‘pickleweed.’ I’m sure that refers to its salty nature, although I’m not certain this one can be eaten. It seems that some of our species are edible, and some not. In any case, the colors of this one make it a visual treat, if not a culinary one.

    1. You can see that the light was coming from the right, but it wasn’t a ninety-degree angle to the plant: more like fifty degrees. I think that semi-backlighting is what gave it that almost translucent appearance. It really is attractive. I’m hoping against hope I can find a large clump of it this year that’s in the process of turning. Seeing the reds, yellows, and oranges over a large expanse of flats is impressive.

    1. The main European species are called samphire in Britain. There are two types: marsh and rock. Marsh samphire grows on muddy, sandy flats like this one, and can be found around estuaries and tidal creeks.

      Rock samphire, as the name suggests, usually is found in high, out of the way places. Shakespeare even mentioned it in King Lear: “Half-way down hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade!”

      It’s said to go well with fish; here’s just a word or two about its culinary qualities. As with mushrooms, sure identification of the species is critical; not all are edible.

    1. The changes are subtle, but they’re around. We’re supposed to get an honest-to-goodness front later this week that will take us all the way down to highs in the 50s and at least one low in the 40s. That ought to encourage any leaves that are thinking of changing color.

      I’d love to have a nightlight like this. I’ve seen plenty of seashells turned into nightlights; why couldn’t a glassmaker create one like this?

    1. You might have a chance of a glasswort invasion if Lake Travis suddenly turned salty, but otherwise you’re going to have to come to the coast. It doesn’t take to the dune environment, but any of the flats probably have it, even along the middle and lower coast. I’m anxious to see if the cooler temperatures that are coming will brighten it up, and make it easier to find.

  3. Delightful. I also saw the resemblance to the aussie plant, but ours doesn’t have those beautiful colors. Like many aussie, we are more subtle.

    1. When I looked at yours I was surprised to see that its scientific name is Sarcocornia quinqueflora. I wondered about that, but found that it originally was Salicornia quinqueflora. Then, in 1977, the taxonomists created a new genus, and the rest is history (with a dollop of confusion thrown in). There’s a nice page about it here that notes the Maori name is ureure.

  4. I’m not near salt water very often, and am totally unfamiliar with salt marsh plants – this is unusual and very cool! So I was just reading a bit about glasswort, and glass-making, and the orange colors in your photo look a little like peach carnival glass.

    1. You’re right about the resemblance to carnival glass. I’ll bet the effect would be heightened if the glasswort were reflected in water. I’ve seen it in standing water before, but usually in the spring, when it’s still green. We certainly don’t need any heavy fall rains, but if they come, it might be fun to look for reflections.

      Until I posted this photo and did some reading, I had no idea there was an actual connection between glasswort and glass-making. There’s always something new to learn!

    1. Maybe we should convince Chihuly to do some glassworts in glass. Wouldn’t that be something? Living in a freshwater world as you do, your exposure to plants like this one, that thrives in salty environments, probably would be limited to botanical gardens or other specialized displays. But that’s part of the fun. I get to see your Michigan, and you get to see my mudflats!

      By the way — I walked into the grocery store this evening, and what should I see but a display of big, white pumpkins. Have they been there all the time, and I didn’t see them? I have no idea, but I laughed.

    1. What a great comparison. The plant doesn’t wave much because it’s so short, but its glowing makes up for the lack of movement. It’s great fun to watch them change colors, from the bottom up. It’s a slow, subtle process — although I am curious to see how the coming cold(er) weather will affect the transition. Wouldn’t a washed silk dress in these colors be glorious? or any kind of watercolored fabric, for that matter.

  5. These remind me of the illuminated batons used on the ground to guide in planes on the runways. Of course, that is a third hand reminder as I’ve never actually seen them used in real time.
    Back a few years ago, I had an online friend through a site,, who specialized in photographing glasswort near Cape Cod. She really made some brilliant images of them which required her to lie in the water. Yours definitely looks like a beacon.

    1. I looked at some of the images from Cape Cod, and they’re spectacular. I’ve never seen such large stands of glasswort. I think there must be some different species there, too. The magenta and purple ones are beautiful, but I’ve seen only the red/orange/yellow combinations. I was going to say I couldn’t imagine lying in the water for a shot, but if the glasswort was that beautiful, I might consider it.

      I can see the resemblance to one of those illuminated batons, perfectly. That brought to mind the lightsabers from Starwars. I haven’t seen any of the films, but I think this plant would make a great lightsaber.

      1. Well, her online nickname is “Fish” so that accounts for something. I haven’t lain in water yet, but I have knelt in it many times. Not always clean water either.
        If you like science fiction and humor then you might enjoy the movies but they are long, just as The Lord of the Rings is long, and require quite a commitment.

        1. I love humor, but science fiction and fantasy? Not so much. As proof, I’ll offer up the fact that I had to go to the urban dictionary one day to figure out what LOTR was referring to. Good grief.

  6. How interesting that it is segmented that way, like an insect leg. I wonder what attribute the “glass” in the name refers to.

    1. A week ago I wouldn’t have known that ‘glasswort’ came into use in the 16th century to describe plants whose ashes could be used for making soda-based glass.

      Glasswort and saltwort plants sequester the sodium they absorb from salt water into their tissues; burning the plants converts some of the sodium into sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate, or ‘soda ash.’ For glassmaking, it’s superior to potash obtained from the ashes of non-salty plants.

      The word ‘glasswort’ appeared in English thanks to a 16th-century resurgence in English glassmaking led by glassmakers who emigrated from Lorraine and Venice. William Turner, in his New Herball (published 1562 and 1568), wrote: “But lest this herb should be without a name, it may be called Saltwurt, because it is salt in taste, and Salalkali is made thereof. It may also be called Glas Wede, because the ashes of it serve to make glass.”

    1. We’re coming very close to a freeze tonight — or at least dropping into the 30s — and I’m hoping the change will stimulate the colors even more. The little bluestem is starting to turn, and there’s just a hint of color in the cypress, so some of these plants that can become vibrant just might do so.

    1. You have similar species, called samphire. There are two types: marsh and rock. Marsh samphire grows on muddy, sandy flats like this one, and can be found around estuaries and tidal creeks.
      Rock samphire’s usually found in high, out of the way places, and isn’t so easy to get ahold of. If you ever see something that’s segmented, and looks like a succulent, it might be your version of glasswort.

    1. Last weekend, they really were beginning to change. I hope to find a nice, photogenic spread of the plant in the next weeks, where the variety of colors is more dramatic. And I’m glad you like the framing. Here’s my confession: in the original photo, the bit I focused on was almost vertical. I thought it was boring, so I turned the image to make it more diagonal. Sometimes a little adjustment can make a difference!

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