From habitat restoration to home brews, rhizomes rule


A rhizome is a modified stem that grows horizontally below the soil surface. Rhizomes are full of starches and proteins, and as they grow, they are able to sprout new shoots that feed off this food source. This allows the plant to essentially “clone” itself, spreading from its original seedling to occupy more space.

In coastal marsh restoration, propagating rhizmonious species is a useful tool.  At many of our restoration sites around the San Francisco Bay, the shoreline is infested with invasive plants. These non-native species thrive on the disturbed soils of bay fill and get a head start on our California native plants. In order to successfully restore a site, it’s a tough battle between these invasives and the native plants we grow. Through our community based restoration programs, volunteers are able to pull these invasive species as they sprout, but that is only half the battle.

creeping wild rye
Creeping wild rye, spreading through its rhizomes at our site at Eden Landing Ecological reserve in Hayward.

The ultimate goal is for the native plants to become fully established so they can keep invasive plants from growing themselves. This is where the rhizomes come in. Being able to spread vegetatively through these underground stems, the native plants such as Marsh Baccharis, Creeping Wild Rye, Western Goldenrod, and California Bee Plant, can spread at a faster rate in addition to producing seed. As these rhizomes spread they compete with invasive seedlings for water and nutrients from the soil, as well as space and access to sunlight.  It’s amazing to watch these native plants spread from their original seedlings to form dense stands of vegetation, the perfect cover and habitat for many species living in and adjacent to the marsh.

Hop rhizome
Hop rhizomes used to make beer.

Not only are rhizomes amazing from a restoration viewpoint, we also rely on them for several tasty foods. Hops used for brewing and flavoring beer also grow from rhizomes. Asparagus sprout from these modified stems as well, and the ginger root used in cooking and making teas is actually a rhizome itself!

Come see how cool rhizomes are yourself by transplanting Creeping Wild Rye rhizomes at one of our public nursery programs held every 1st Wednesday of the month, or help in the ongoing battle against the invasives at one of our Saturday public programs in the field! Sign up to volunteer online.

Notes from the Field | Sowing a New Restoration Cycle

Baccharis glutinosa
Two weeks after we sow marsh baccharis, germination begins and little cotyledons emerge.

Spring is upon us once again! In the annual cycle of ecological restoration, this is the time when we start growing new native seedlings for next winter’s planting. As species have different growth rates, they are propagated in phases throughout the spring and early summer. Plants need to germinate, grow and develop root and shoot systems, and harden off. Within 6 to 9 months, they go from a seed to a healthy, hardy seedling ready to take on the world.

The first species we sow is marsh baccharis, formally called, Baccharis glutinosa. After two weeks’ time, germination begins and little cotyledons emerge above the soil. Now the little germinants begin the complex process of developing initial roots and actual leaves that can photosynthesize. In several months, they will be transplanted into larger containers to grow in for the remainder of the season until the rainy season returns and they are ready to be planted.

Growing native plants from seed is a fascinating process. There are many stages in the process and each is directly related to lessons learned from nature. In the first stage, seed collection, there are tell-tale signs when the seeds have reached maturity. Collecting them too early may result in very poor germination, loo late and they simply may not be there. Marsh baccharis is in the sunflower family and produces seeds called achenes. Each seed has hairs attached to it that enable the seed to be dispersed in the wind, like dandelion seeds.

Marsh baccharis is an herbaceous perennial that is typically found growing in dense patches just above the high tide line of the Bay. It grows from seed and from rhizomes, and has dark green, sticky, lance shaped leaves. From July through September, the plant produces small white flowers. It provides important habitat for a variety of birds, small mammals, and insect pollinators.

Come out and join us on our public nursery programs on the first and second Wednesdays of every month. We provide an excellent opportunity to improve your horticultural skills and discover the diversity of plants that live along the edge of the bay.

Happy spring sowing and I hope to see you soon!

— Doug Serrill, Save The Bay Nursery Manager