Keep off the grass.

Good advice for the grass that is the only type of turf that I would ever advocate for. I am no lover of lawns; wildflowers and weeds are more valuable for the wild things in our neighborhood.

The grass of which I speak never needs trimming. In fact, the attempt to mowit would be something tosee. While it grows rapidly in the spring, it should never be cut atall. No matter, as no one has yet built an aquatic lawnmower.

Eelgrass, Zostera marina, might just be the greatest grass of all, but in truth is no grass at all. Neither a true grass nor seaweed, eelgrass tries to hold its own in the watery world of bays, estuaries, and salt water ponds. Unfortunately over the years, its good grip has slipped.

More than 90 per cent of all eelgrass along the Atlantic Coast has been lost in the last 70 years due to wasting disease, physical disturbances of eelgrass beds (boats, anchors, and other human factors), and declines in water quality. The loss of these marine meadows is a true tragedy for wildlife and humans.

The value of eelgrass cannot be overstated. It provides much in the marine ecosystem. For starters, it is habitat — home for herring, protection for pipefish, campsites for crabs, safe haven for snails and scallops, and quarters for many other critters.

Each blade is a buffet, a food factory for the myriad microorganisms, such as diatoms, bacteria and detritus that can live onits leaves (which can grow up to three feet inlength). 

While its leaves can be eaten, they are mostly cellulose and very tough, so less than five per cent of the actual plant is eaten directly. Eelgrass is thus not the main meal, but a vehicle for food delivery, a canteen truck of minibites. It is more like the plate in a buffet, rather than the main course.

Zostera is also a stubborn stick-in-the-mud (or grass-in-the-mud). The root system of eelgrass prevents erosion by keeping the sand and bottom substrate still and slowing the flow of water.

This field of green defies the regular rules of botany. Although it lives in the water, it is a perennial flowering plant, or angiosperm. It blooms small flowers beneath its leaf sheath, and has bladdery fruits that can float. Seeds are encapsulated in its fruits and are released and dispersed via tides and currents in the late summer.

Flowering, pollination and seed germination all take place underwater, but the seeds released only last for one season. In the fall and winter, the plant dies back, sloughs off and decays. It is common to see the brown blades in piles along many of our beaches.

Sexual reproduction is not the only way that eelgrass can reproduce. Its rhizomes, or roots, can sprout new shoots. This is called vegetativereproduction. Both methods together have not been able to keep up with the huge losses that this plant has encountered over the lastcentury. Locally, declines in eelgrass have been observed in Lake Tashmoo, Sengekontacket Pond, Lagoon Pond and other areas.

So much more can be said about eel-grass (Bill Wilcox will tell all if asked), but I will leave that soliloquy to the experts (I won’t tread on their turf, so to speak). They know that it’s true that the grass is always greener on the other side — in this case, the underwater side!


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.