Lingering Autumn ~ Salt Cedars

Salt cedar in January ~ Follett’s Island, Brazoria County

Commonly known as salt cedar, several Tamarisk species (Tamarix spp.) flourish in the United States. Introduced from Eurasia in the 1800s as a means of erosion control, the tree-like shrubs became useful as windbreaks, and soon gained acceptance by horticulturalists as garden ornamentals. Filled with delicate pink flowers in spring, salt cedars occasionally take on rich, molten colors in autumn, adding considerable interest to a landscape or garden.

Unfortunately, salt cedars are aggressive: spreading into riparian areas of the American West as well as along the beaches, tidal marshes, and wetlands of coastal states. Able to survive the cold, they can be found around the Great Lakes, and even as far north as Toronto and Montreal.

Where conditions suit them they spread easily, consuming large amounts of water in the process. As they pull water from saline soils, excess salt accumulates in their leaves before being excreted through glands on the leaves’ underside: the source of the plant’s common name. Sometimes, leaves become encrusted with salt crystals before dropping to the ground. When that happens, high concentrations of salt accumulate in the soil; even two inches of salt-encrusted leaf litter beneath the trees can displace native plants, or prevent their establishment

Salt cedar leaves excreting water and salt

Despite their invasive status, and despite on-going attempts to control or eradicate them, there’s no denying the salt cedars’ attractiveness. Like other non-native plants introduced to please the eye, their presence may have resulted in some unintended consequences, but they certainly are pretty.

Salt cedar flowering in spring ~ Galveston Island


Comments always are welcome.

54 thoughts on “Lingering Autumn ~ Salt Cedars

    1. Another source of autumn color for us is the Chinese Tallow tree. As ‘Chinese’ suggests, it’s also non-native and invasive, and terribly difficult to eradicate, but its red, yellow, and orange leaves certainly can be attractive.

  1. Well, I have to say, if you have to have an invasive species, let’s find a lovely one — and the salt cedar certainly seems to fit that bill. I love that it blooms in the spring, too.

    1. It’s beautiful in spring, although I don’t have many photos of the blooms; sometimes I’m late to the party, and sometimes I discover that trees I expected to see have been cut.

      I don’t fault anyone for trying to get rid of them. A note on the Texas Invasive Institutes site says, “With hundreds to thousands of seeds produced between the months of April and October, the saltcedar tree is able to become established rapidly. Seeds are carried via wind or water and germinate within 24 hours of detecting moisture… Once grounded, seedlings can grow at an alarming rate of one foot per month during the spring season.”

    1. I’d bet you’ve seen them at the coast, but apart from their fall color and their pretty spring blooms, they’re fairly unobtrusive. Like our Baccharis species, they’re just part of the landscape: feathery, but not particularly noticeable.

  2. “Molten” is A great description for the color of its autumn foliage. Very attractive! I wonder if raking up/taking away fallen foliage would be a practical method of desalinating soil, or allowing it to grow a few years and then grubbing out and removing the trees. I see that it has shown up in Long Island, NY and around the Great Lakes, as you mentioned, but I haven’t seen it so far.
    An attractive pest in any case!

    1. As I understand it, the salinity issue’s complicated. The salt cedars prefer saline soils; that’s why they show up along the coast but not on the prairies I visit. The problem arises when they add too much salt to the soil; native plants that also thrive in a saline environment have their own ways to cope with naturally occurring salts, but they can’t overcome the extra load of salt the trees create.

      As for getting rid of them, this paragraph from the USDA Guide for Managing Salt Cedar is instructive: “Control methods that target and destroy the root system are the only techniques that provide complete plant control. Methods that damage or remove aboveground growth without destroying the root crown will suppress saltcedar, but will not kill the plant.” It’s a tough one!

      1. I keep reading about dealing with tough characters like this with goats! Chop & remove as much as you can and when it re-sprouts, stake a temporary fence around the area and let the goats eat down to the ground — kudzu, shrubs, poison ivy, etc. — it’s all a salad bar to the goats. And I get a kick out of goats, they’re friendly and about as smart as most dogs.

        1. They’re smarter than a few dogs I’ve known. In the hill country, there are places where ranchers or homeowners have turned goats loose among their ‘cedars’ — actually Ashe Junipers. The trees end up looking really funny; their shape is flat-bottomed, marking the upper limits of the goats’ reach.

  3. I don’t think I knew salt cedar grows on Galveston Island. I first became acquainted with it years ago at Big Bend. Here’s what the National Park Service says: “In the Big Bend, the non-native plant can often be found growing in abundance in drainages, near springs and along the banks of the Rio Grande. The National Park Service is responsible for preventing the damage saltcedar causes to natural resources, as it competes with and displaces native species and alters the natural environment. Despite a variety of efforts to reduce or control the spread of saltcedar, including cutting and application of herbicides, no successful and cost-effective long-term control strategy has been developed.”

    You’re right that it can look pretty.

    1. Clearly, ‘someone’ didn’t do her job of pointing them out. You’ve been in the company of salt cedars on both Galveston and Follett’s islands. The walk from the parking lot at the Kelly Hamby Nature Trail to the beginning of the boardwalk is lined with them, and Eleven Mile Road, that runs north/south on the west side of the Artist Boat spot we visited, is where I took the photo of the flowering tree. If they’d been colorful, or in flower, you would have noticed them.

    1. Of all the reasons for introducing plants in the 1800s, interest in the ‘exotic’ and appreciation for the beauty of such plants seems to me to be primary. Another Asian import, the Trifoliate Orange, has an interesting shape, gorgeous flowers, and an inedible fruit — but it’s common around here now, and battled on a constant basis. At least the swallowtail butterflies enjoy its flowers.

    1. The Scot’s Broom is pretty. I took one look at it and thought, “Pea family!” Sure enough, that’s where it belongs. It reminded me of our Baptisia sphaerocarpa. We have two Baptisia species that thrive on the prairies, along fencelines, and in pastures. I have photos of it from the same spot where I photographed this flowering tree; I need to post them.

  4. We have oodles of Chinese tallow here in SC. So many that residents are discouraged from planting them. They were popular due to their fast growth, the cool looking white seeds and colorful fall foliage. But they just spread everywhere. There’s plenty of kudzu,too. But I can’t recall ever seeing salt cedar. I must check that out.

  5. Oh, that is pretty fall color! I’d seen photos of the spring blooms, but not fall color. I know in deep South Texas, along the coastal areas and Rio Grand, there are efforts to eradicate, but, as you indicate, with some difficulty.

    In reference to Lavinia’s comment, we traveled quite a bit to Oregon when our son attended college there (loved it!). We came *this close* to buying a house in Eugene. Regrets aside, I remember thinking that there was a decent number of the Scott’s Broom that I would have to get rid of. Oh well, I hope the smart owners who snagged that house didn’t let it continue to spread, even though it is pretty.

    1. There can be quite a variation in color from year to year. I tend to keep an eye on certain stands of the plant, hoping for a vibrant turn, but it doesn’t always happen. There’s been some substantial cutting on our local islands; it’s going to be interesting to watch for regrowth this year. I read that it can grow 9-12 feet in a season, and reproduce in its first year. Yikes!

      That’s interesting, about the Scot’s Broom. I can remember a time when I would have looked at it, thought “Oh! Pretty flower” and never considered that it might be out of place.

  6. Very attractive blooms and that rusty autumn look is pleasing. I reckon if invasives weren’t so good looking we wouldn’t have that many. Plants. I’m talking about plants.

    At this point, they don’t seem to have discovered Florida. It’s only a matter of time. And tide. And wind. And birds. Durn birds.

    1. I spent a little time last night pondering the question of why salt cedar hasn’t shown up en masse in Florida. The BONAP maps show it, but “exotic and present” can be a little vague, and the USDA doesn’t show it at all. I did find this old (2008) article that was pretty interesting. Getting after the stuff when it first appears is certainly good.

      The autumn color can be highly variable: sometimes as colorful as this, and sometimes barely tinted. When it shines, though, it really shines.

      1. I think I’ve actually come across salt cedar locally. I’ll visit those spots and see if I can determine for certain and report back.

        That was an interesting article.

    1. I found the salty needle dropping trick especially interesting. I’m sure there must be other plants that engage in the same sort of ‘behavior,’ but I can’t think of one right now, apart from the tendency of some vines to shade out the plants around them, and the parasitical/hemiparasitical behavior of others. There are other salt marsh plants that excrete their excess salt, but the ones I know about are natives that have evolved in such a way that things stay in balance.

      1. The one that came immediately to mind for me was the walnut tree, which secrets a chemical that keeps anything from growing near it. I think eucalyptus trees do a similar thing.

    1. That’s certainly true. I’ve noticed that many of the introduced species around here are attractive, despite their problems. Some have served dual purposes, arriving in hopes that they could help to contain erosion, or even serve as fencing (like Trifoliate Orange).

        1. That’s one reason there’s been a certain caution about wholesale introduction of a certain beetle that helps to keep salt cedars in check in their native lands. Who knows what else that beetle might favor?

  7. This reminds me of my Tiny Tree. I wonder if they might be cousins or something? I haven’t noticed any salt on mine, but then again, it’s not like I’m particularly close to a big body of water. I rather think it might be invasive, though, based on the facts that I didn’t plant it and don’t do a thing to encourage its continued growth!

    1. This is a great example of how appearances can be deceiving. As I remember, your tree has a bit of a feathery appearance, but I’m sure it’s in the Pinaceae, or pine tree family. This one is in the Tamaricaceae, or tamarisk family, and the conditions it favors are quite different. Just because you didn’t plant it doesn’t mean it’s invasive. In fact, I’m sure it’s native. If you look around, I’d bet you’ll see other trees like it, and that suggests that one of your neighborhood squirrels may be responsible for giving you a little gift with branches!

  8. There are so many invasives out there. It’s not at all uncommon for me to take notice of something for the first time and photograph it just to get home and discover it’s yet another invasive. But, as you said, that doesn’t stop them from being very attractive. And they are still a part of nature, even if we’ve disturbed it all a bit by introducing them. What I like most about your post is how you’ve gone to the effort of detailing many of the reasons this invasive causes problems for the native species.

    1. It’s complicated, that’s for sure. ‘Invasive’ doesn’t necessarily mean non-native, for example. Our Baccharis species are native, but they can proliferate like crazy, and become invasive on everything from ranch lands to refuges. On the other hand, there are non-native invasives that kick it up a notch and become ‘noxious.’ In fact, in western Kansas, I came across a town that had a steel building with a big sign posted on it that said, “Noxious Weed Warehouse.” If I ever get back there, you can be sure I’ll take the time to have a chat with the staff!

  9. Like Scotch Broom, Linda, spread because of its beauty, but so incredibly invasive. Spanish Bayonet is another. Then there are invasives like star thistle that have no redeeming qualities as far as I can tell. Sounds like the salt encrusted leaves evolved specifically to assure its dominance. –Curt

    1. I remember your tales of encountering the star thistle. If your Spanish bayonet is Yucca aloifolia, it’s a native here, and along the Gulf Coast. Sometimes Oregon and Texas might as well be Texas the the Mediteranean when it comes to what’s native and what’s not.

      And look at what I just learned. Knowing we have native salt-tolerant plants like glassworts, I looked them up and discovered they’re called halophytes. Of course the next question was, “Is Tamarisk a halophyte?” Apparently the answer is ‘sort of.’ It’s defined as a recretohalophyte, a halophyte that secretes salt. What a world!

      1. My bad on the Spanish bayonet, although the west coast version is Yucca harrimaniae and considered something of a bad dude. What I was thinking of was pampas grass. Pretty but very invasive along the Pacific Coast and inland.
        A fascinating world, Right.

        1. Oh, Pampas grass. It’s around here, too, and has made the lists as an invasive. I see it most often in residential and municipal plantings, although a nearby town got rid of it during a highway re-build. Now, their medians are filled with native trees and yuccas — pretty, and far better for the area generally.

  10. I also think the flowers are exceedingly attractive, but ever since I’ve learned about the problems they have caused for native flora along untold stretches of western rivers, and the incredible effort and expense of trying to eradicate them, it’s difficult to view this plant objectively.

    1. I’ll grant your point, but it’s worth remembering that where the various Tamarix species are native, there are on-going efforts to develop and use the plant for everything from medicine to erosion control. Like in real estate, the key is ‘location, location, location.’

      Here, where it certainly is an undesirable invasive, I think it’s worth highlighting so that people can recognize it for what it is, and understand why it’s so undesirable. I well remember the days when I distinguished plants by only two categories: pretty, and not-pretty. I’ve moved past that, and in the process have learned that combining science with aesthetics can be useful. I certainly never would plant a tamarisk, but I still think they’re pretty.

      1. They definitely are pretty. And I also keep in mind that ever since humans started migrating across continents and oceans, so-called invasive species followed in their wake. We can’t turn back the clock and undo that fact, and sometimes I even wonder if our energies and monies would be better spent elsewhere, rather than trying to combat what we consider unwanted species. It’s a multifaceted, complex issue, and I don’t have the insight to know which approach would be better.

        1. To make things even more complex, European collectors of ‘exotic’ plants from the New World received crates and crates of seeds, samples, and herbaria sheets from the botanists and naturalists whose names are memorialized in our species lists. Even in places like New Zealand and Australia, there are examples of our natives becoming troublesome. Add in the birds, insects, and other creatures that have been displaced and misplaced, and you’re right — deciding how to deal with the unintended consequences can be a conundrum.

  11. Several years ago I read “Playing God in Yellowstone” which deals with humans’ attempt at dealing with wolves and their attacks on livestock near the park. As with many of our attempts to control mother nature there are unintended consequences and this erosion control with Tamarisks is an example.
    I’ve noticed that many invasive plants do offer some form of attraction whether it is flowers, leaves, or shape and that makes gardeners give it a place to grow and spread. As your image proves, it is an attractive ornamental.

    1. Have you read The Control of Nature by John McPhee? It’s focus is somewhat different, but the issues are the same. Good book.

      Interestingly, it’s said that wolves are gone from Texas, but there have been recent reports of their presence in Chambers county and points east and north. The reports I’ve heard were from ranch managers and outdoorsmen who know their stuff, so who knows? It would be wonderful, if true.

      1. I started several books by McPhee but haven’t finished any of them. The problem there is not McPhee but my attention span. Mary Beth gets on my case about starting books before finishing what I’ve started. Something new always gets my attention.

        It’s similar here but with mountain lions. People claim to have seen them but so far they have always, at least as best as anyone can tell, turned out to be bobcats that are a bit on the larger size. From what I’ve read people “see” wolves sometimes that, as with our mountain lions/bobcats, turn out to be very healthy coyotes.

        1. True enough. Still, when professional hunters, guides, or land managers suggest they’ve seen this or that, it’s worth considering. Now that game cams are becoming ubiquitous, we might get a glimpse one day. The Louisiana black bear is another that east Texans believe is coming into the state.

    1. It certainly beats safety cone orange, or Halloween orange. I like the way the green and yellow of partly-turned branches create a sort of mottled effect, helping to dilute the orange.

  12. I’m just beginning to learn about how plants manage salt in their water. Your comment about the cedars excreting salt along their branches reminded me of a recent post by Rudi, over at Picpholio, showing the salt crystals extruded along the stems of some marsh plants. Nature is continually surprising!

    1. Even more surprising for me was learning that some of our succulent salt marsh plants use salt to help maintain water levels. I’m still sorting out words and concepts like ‘halophyte,’ not to mention the complexities of dune structure. At least I was smart enough to figure out on a perfectly dry morning that there was soemthing other than dew responsible for the drippy salt cedar branches!

    1. It’s especially pretty when in bloom, and a nice additional to our autumn landscape when the color turn is vibrant. Beyond that, it’s a clever plant: the way it’s developed a way to thrive in a salty environment. That doesn’t negate the truth of your comment, though. Outside of its native environment, it is a thug!

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