Swept Clean: Resilience

Waiting for Flotsam ~ Laughing Gull
[Continued from Part I]

Once the beaches had been cleared of Hurricane Laura’s detritus, little remained but broken shells, pebbles, piled-up stacks of salt cedar, and a variety of tasty treats for shorebirds patrolling the surf.

But if the sea had taken away, it was equally willing to give back. Before long, the beach was adorned with new treasures, such as this necklace-like seed draped across the sand.

Eventually, a flotilla of mysterious and just slightly amusing bits of green life arrived on the beach, carried in on the surf. As they eased open, it was easy to imagine them conversing with one another, trying to decide if this was an acceptable place to put down roots.

In time, it became obvious that the answer was “Yes.” Smooth, succulent stems began to develop, followed by waxy leaves.

The plant was an enthusiastic grower, and eager to bloom. When its pink, star-shaped flowers finally appeared, it was easy to identify Sesuvium portulacastrum: sea purslane, or shoreline purslane. Although published by Linnaeus in 1753 under the name Portulaca portulacastrum, Linnaeus himself transferred it into the genus Sesuvium six years later, and the name has been retained.

A member of the Aizoaceae, or iceplant family, sea purslane flowers have sepals rather than petals; its flowers open and close within a single day.

In Wildflowers and Other Plants of Texas Beaches and Islands, Alfred Richardson notes the plant is one of the few species that thrive on the front side of the dunes. Because of its tendency to catch and hold sand around its leaves and stems, sea purslane serves as a critical dune stabilizer.

Another plant useful for beach and shoreline stabilization is cordgrass. Along the Texas coast, one of the most common is Spartina spartinae; the species  develops large, dense clumps that allow it to catch and hold sediment and sand. Healthy stands of Gulf cordgrass also provide nesting habitat for birds and cover for other wildlife.

Caution: cordgrass at work

As months passed and the cordgrass multiplied, drifting sand collected around it, forming small dunes that soon would be populated with ever more diverse plants.


Nature, filling in the spaces

Yet another dune stabilizer, the beach morning glory (Ipomoea imperati) soon made its appearance. A trailing evergreen vine with pretty white flowers, it occurs naturally in coastal areas. After Laura, old vines like those shown in the lower right corner of this photo served as a starting point for new growth. 

Ipomoea imperati

In some cases, bulldozed piles of salt cedar and other woody debris were left on the beach. It’s hard to say how many creatures called the piles home, but there were more than a few crabs scuttling around in the shade of the branches. The contrast between the deadwood and the increasingly rich plant life on the dunes made for an interesting — and pleasing — contrast.

But, as this island resident might have said, the best was yet to come.

A Solitary Sandpiper watches from the boardwalk for further developments
(part two of three)

Comments always are welcome.

61 thoughts on “Swept Clean: Resilience

    1. We so easily use the expression “force of nature,” but don’t always stop to consider precisely how much force is involved. Dylan Thomas came close with his poem:

      The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
      Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
      Is my destroyer.
      And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
      My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

    1. Indeed they are. The same notices are posted on our barrier islands. Also, long boardwalks are constructed over the dunes, so that people who are staying at resorts or hotels, or who have homes on the islands, can walk to the beach without disturbing them.

      Around here, there’s another reason to stay away from the dunes. Rattlesnakes love them.

    1. An entry like this resembles a time-lapse video. Watching the changes in real time isn’t quite so compelling, and a ‘snapshot’ of an individual day, however lovely, can’t communicate the changes. It’s been interesting to watch the process; I’m glad you found it interesting, too.

  1. Patience is needed to document the steady changes. Nature has all the time in the world and will get the job done. We humans need to stay out of the way and let it happen.

    1. You’re right about the ability of nature to repair herself, although there certainly is a place for human assistance. The sand replenishment on Galveston beaches is a good example. Between the seawall and the water, the beach had narrowed considerably. Now, it’s as wide as I remember it from my early days here.

      Beyond that, a favorite local anchorage was created when Galveston was raised by several feet after the Great Storm of 1900. The entire city was jacked up, and slurry from the anchorage pumped underneath it. Between that and the building of the seawall, the city survived.

  2. You’re fortunate to live close to the coast, as something is always happening where the land meets the sea. I remember Ipomoea imperati from the recent jaunt to Corpus Christi.

    Time for the etymologist to get down to noting that dune and down are essentially the same word. The Old English predecessor of down was dūn, which meant ‘hill.’

    1. So we might say that the name of the historic manufacturer of cigarettes and men’s luxury goods — Dunhill — is a redundancy.

      When that name came to mind, I found this interesting bit of commentary: “[the company was] founded in 1893 by Alfred Dunhill, whose edict was: “It must be useful. It must be reliable. It must last. It must be beautiful. It must be the best of its kind.” Reading that, I couldn’t help but think of William Morris’s famous pronouncement: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” Morris lived from1834 to1896, so they were contemporaries, and obviously shared some of the same views.

  3. It is encouraging to see nature reclaim its own in this way. Dune stabilization is critical to shoreline stability and a great buffer against storm surges.

    1. The issues along these barrier islands are complicated a bit by their narrowness, and by the presence of bays and the Intracoastal Waterway on the land side. On this map, the Hamby nature trail is along the shore about in the middle of the image, and you can see the ICW and an edge of the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge at the top. After Laura, given the low elevation, the storm surge reached all the way to the Brazoria Refuge; the debris line was easy to spot.

      I suppose that’s all to say that every part of this big system has to be in working order for the beaches, marshes, bays, and bayous to thrive; the best news is that people with specific concerns about different areas increasingly are working together.

    1. The answer to your question about land loss is a little complicated. Apart from storms, our local beaches and dunes are relatively stable, but there’s significant land loss around the bays and marshes. Natural subsidence plays a role, as does commercial activity like dredging. Salt water incursion through canals damages some areas, while the introduction of non-native plants poses real problems for bayous.

      It’s such a complex system, and quite different from places where an ocean beach forms a fringe along otherwise dry land. If I leave home to “go to the beach,” I encounter innumerable fresh and salt water marshes along the way, not to mention bayous, rivers, and bays — we live in a water world!

  4. Beautiful pics! I particularly like the third one. Also like that Laughing Gull, reminds me of a similar one I see often here, the Franklin Gull. The caption reminds me of a poem but forgot which.

    1. I really like that third photo, too. I’d never seen anything like those green seed-like things covering the beach that day, and it was fun watching them take hold and begin to develop. Do you think the caption under the gull might have recalled Waiting for Godot?

      I thought of you a couple of days ago. Our library has Kanopy now, and I’m signed up. I’m eager to explore it a bit. I had hoped to find The Mission available — it was at one time — but it seems to have been taken down. I assume they rotate their films.

    1. Your lighthouses were meant to help keep people off the beach, but these dunes and plants are like a light drawing me to the beach. It’s fun to think about how much power the shore has, and how many people enjoy it. I’m glad you enjoyed these photos.

  5. Resilience seems to be the perfect word to describe Nature.

    The purslane and morning-glory blooms are glorious. Dunes are always busy places, it seems.

    The swept clean beaches and emergent plant growth conjured up a vision of a consultant to Mother Nature in the form of Bob Ross. “And over here, a happy sprig of cordgrass, and in the foreground, some spreading morning-glory.”

    I am as eager as the sandpiper to discover what comes next!

    1. Not only are purslanes and morning-glorys delightful, they’re plants that we share. I enjoyed reading this handbook on dunes restoration in your panhandle, and learned a lot that clearly applies here. I smiled when I saw its cover photo, though. I grew up with snow fence protecting Iowa highways from drifts, but I don’t remember seeing it used with sand. It makes perfect sense.

      I didn’t know much about Ross, so I read his Wiki entry. It mentioned his “happy little trees” — akin to cordgrass, I’m sure — and included this quote from him: “I got a letter from somebody here a while back, and they said, ‘Bob, everything in your world seems to be happy.’ That’s for sure. That’s why I paint. It’s because I can create the kind of world that I want, and I can make this world as happy as I want it. Shoot, if you want bad stuff, watch the news.” No kidding.

  6. What wonderful news! I’m very much enjoying this look at the improvements Nature is making after the hurricane passed, Linda. Perhaps it’s a gentle reminder that, if we humans can restrain ourselves from “helping” too much, Nature will find ways to cover the battle scars she endures.

    1. The great irony is that our first possible tropical critter of the year is a-stirring down by the windward islands. It’s way too soon to know if it will strengthen, or where it will go, but I hope that my little beach isn’t insulted again this year! While we wait to see what happens next, I can guarantee you some photos of some lovely plants that took up resident along the boardwalk and the area behind the building dunes. It’s been wonderful to see.

  7. I’m so glad the dunes came back! I hate to see beaches where the condos are directly on the sand. It’s ugly, and also very bad for the beach. My favorite beaches have healthy dunes, and you have to walk on a boardwalk or or some other “overpass” to get to the beach so you don’t damage them.

    1. I agree with you about the inappropriateness of building on the beaches. Damage is inevitable. The solutions here aren’t perfect, but at least the requirement that structures remain behind the vegetation line helps. We have those boardwalks over the dunes, too. Once the steps were torn off the boardwalk at this beach, other steps were put in place; they come down from the side, but the path is parallel to the boardwalk, and the building dunes aren’t disturbed.

  8. I love seeing how your world has evolved over time after the storm. It really is quite beautiful, Linda. And quite a miracle how things replenish themselves. Your title resilience is so apt.

    1. Time so often is the issue. We tend to be impatient, about every sort of thing. But given time, nature can do remarkable things. More than a few people were astonished to find shrubs and trees they assumed were dead as the proverbial doornail after last year’s freeze coming back to life in six or nine months. There was a reason the plant gurus said, “Don’t cut it down right away. Live with the ugly for a while, and see if the beauty comes back.”

  9. Humans could learn a few things just by observing the restorative powers of nature if left to its own devices with little or no interference from us: just as you have shown in your post. The coast yields so many treasures as it supports myriad species of both land and marine. I find i the coast quite miraculous and beautiful.

    1. The area where the land meets the sea is fascinating. Whether the delight is a tidal pool or a scattering of shells, you’re right that there are treasures galore. And it changes every minute. I think that’s one reason it fascinates us in the same way that a fire can. It’s always the same, and yet always different. I’m reminded of that even at work. While I may be able to step straight onto a boat in the morning, by afternoon that same boat may be much higher or lower than the dock. It’s the tide at work: silent, but determined.

  10. I’ve always been amazed at the recuperative powers of nature, Linda. The same thing happens after fires. Was your ice plant a native or invasive? On the West Coast, they are considered invasive in a major way. Different flower than you showed, however. –Curt

    1. These are a member of the iceplant family, but that’s a large family with 135 genera and about 1800 species. The California invasive iceplant is Carpobrotus edulis, while this one — a native — is in the genus Sesuvium. Apparently there are a couple of other plants that also are called iceplant, but they’re in yet other genera: so confusing! One thing’s for sure: both your invasive and our native can spread like wildfire.

  11. As hurricane prone as the Gulf coast is, I’m not surprised at either the resilience or the speed of recolonization that plants there exhibit. I like the sandpipers, bless their little knock-kneed hearts.

    1. All of the little shore birds are amusing and cute. I can’t keep them sorted, but at least I can recognize a few now. It helped that this one had chosen to stand still for a while.

      As for the recolonization, I hardly can contain myself. The next set of photos, taken in May and June of this year, are really something. Sometimes, even Nature likes a little extravagance.

    1. That it is, Pit. And every day is different. I’ve missed our various seaweeds and jellies this year, but that could be because the heat’s made frequent visits less than enticing. Thank goodness autumn is coming — if we can just get past The Season™.

    1. There are a few other flowers that will make an appearance in the next post. I’m not sure whether they’re still blooming, given the difficult conditions over the past weeks, but recent rain has been relatively plentiful. I’m going down to the Island tomorrow, and some friends and I are going to pop into Artist Boat, Lafitte’s Cove, and maybe Hamby. It will be good to be out again.

      1. All three are good locations, for sure. If you have some extra moments, I often have good luck going north from Stewart Road onto 8 Mile Road, then to Sportsman Road, and following it to the dead end. You’ll wind up in the marsh at the edge of West Bay, about 2.5 miles northeast of Artist Boat, as the crow flies. (Good to get acquainted with 8 Mile Road, since that’s where the Sandhill Cranes hang out in the winter.) Have fun!

  12. I had first heard of purslane in some forgotten Shakespeare work. I tried to research which one but came up empty. Maybe I am just not a good Googler. But since then we have had Portulaca oleracea in our garden as elsewhere on the property and on occasion picked a little and added it to a salad. I’ve not seen it flower so don’t know if it bears any resemblance to your plant, Sesuvium portulacastrum nee Portulaca portulacastrum. And this year I have a hanging basket of flowering portulaca near some of my Boneset plants.
    Living where I do, it is the rare tropical storm that does damage but we do have storms of other descriptions and today some strong thunderstorms caused a bit a few towns over from us. Several years ago a tornado swept through a town nearby where Eliza lives and the recovery takes a different strategy. But Nature does the best recovery work and left alone things do very well.
    Your Sea Purslane is a delightful little flower and I bet our Purslane would be envious.

    1. I’d never heard of your common purslane, but this article pretty well caught me up. It’s interesting that it’s adapted so well all around the world. It certainly has been put to plenty of culinary and medicinal uses. I’d bet that the seaside purslane is saltier, like many of the other plants that thrive in the flats and on the shore.

      Oddly, with so much focus on Laura, I’d forgotten that five years ago today (and tomorrow, and tomorrow…) Hurricane Harvey showed up. I’m glad I live-blogged through that one, because it’s hard to remember now just how terrible it was. It was interesting to go back and look at my posts. I still think my favorite photo’s of the white-tailed deer that I saw swimming across our marina.

  13. Another great post. I love seeing the slow progress of natural recovery. And not being near this kind of coast these species are all new to me, though I always love how similar some are to ones I might be familiar with.

    1. That’s one of the things I really enjoy about having a geographically wide readership. It’s such fun to see and sometimes even recognize related species from a given genera. As a non-gardener, I’ve sometimes even spotted some of our native plants in the “ancestry” of cultivars from the nursery trade. Sometimes I think the plant breeders go too far, but it’s still interesting to see what they’re up to.

      Now that we’re getting rain again, I’m eager to get back down and see what’s happening at Hamby. That said, I think you’ll really enjoy the next post in this series. The plants eventually went into overdrive.

    1. That she does. Now that the rains have come, she’s back with a vengeance; I swear the grasses have grown inches in only days. At the shore last weekend, the morning glories are doing an even better job of covering the dunes.

  14. A pristine beach ready for colonization and the gulf provides the seeds and starts. I’m not surprised they left the piles of dead salt cedar only that they left them in the middle of the beach instead of where the new dunes would develop.

    1. Actually, the salt cedars aren’t so far from the dunes. If I’d photographed them from a different perspective, you could have seen that. I’d say most of them are five-to-ten feet from the face of the dunes. They’ve been battling those trees, that’s for sure. They do have the prettiest pink flowers, and they sometimes turn wonderful colors in the fall. It’s too bad they’re such baddies.

  15. As fascinating as this evolution was to read about and see in your photos, it must have been even more fascinating to observe in person in situ. Nature has this amazing capacity to regenerate, something we humans can only eye with envy, as Dylan Thomas’s poem also suggests.

    1. Sometimes, the regeneration happens even more quickly. I once documented the recovery of a prairie section after a controlled burn. It was amazing to see flowers blooming again after only a month. Warm soil and plenty of sunlight can bring some surprises. We’re so accustomed to faster internet, faster computers, and faster delivery from companies like Amazon, we often are too impatient when it comes to nature.

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