Salicornia rubra A. Nels.
Salicornia europaea ssp. rubra
Basis for Listing
Salicornia rubra (red saltwort) is a succulent halophyte characteristic of salt flats and the margins of alkaline lakes in arid regions of the West. The range of S. rubra is relatively widespread, but because of its specialized habitat, its distribution is local and sporadic. The occurrence of S. rubra in Minnesota seems incongruous, because its habitat is not widely known to occur in the state. Such habitats do exist at the western edge of Minnesota, but they have always been uncommon and have now been largely eliminated by agricultural activities.
Among Minnesota's flora, the appearance of S. rubra is quite unusual and distinctive. It has succulent, apparently leafless stems and branches, producing a skeleton-like appearance. The flowers are very small and appear to come from joints in the stem (actually rudimentary leaves). They will not be noticed without a close examination of the plant. At maturity, the whole plant turns ruby red, creating the impression of a red carpet around pond margins where it occurs. Nothing about the plant will appear at all familiar to someone who is not familiar with the genus (Kadereit et al. 2007).
Salicornia rubra occurs in salt flats, alkaline depressions, exposed shores of alkaline lakes, and saline swales in prairies. Suitable habitats receive full sunlight and are sparsely vegetated. When evaporation at a site exceeds inflow of water, soluble salts and exchangeable sodium may accumulate, resulting in alkaline or saline soils. These salts or sodium can be found naturally in the soil, in soluble fertilizer salts, in stream water, lake water, or irrigation water. Such habitats are found sparingly in western Minnesota. Associated plant species that are also tolerant of these extreme conditions include Atriplex patula (spearscale), Distichlis spicata var. stricta (salt grass), Hordeum jubatum (foxtail barley), Puccinellia nuttalliana (Nuttall's alkali grass), and Suaeda calceoliformis (sea-blite).
Biology / Life History
Salicornia rubra is a small annual forb with succulent stems. It shows an unrivaled tolerance for saline conditions. In fact, it has been shown to require high concentrations of salt (NaCl) rather than simply tolerating it (Tiku 2006). Plants become shorter and denser at higher salinity but are not significantly harmed. As a wetland dries or water levels recede, the seeds of this species will germinate in the exposed salt or alkali-encrusted silt.
Vegetation zones in such habitats vary markedly from year to year depending on water levels. These are pioneer communities that may be dominated by only a few specialized species or sometimes only S. rubra. Salicornia rubra has been observed to cover an entire wetland basin in exceptionally dry years when little, if any, standing water remained by late summer. Such productive years serves to replenish a seed bank in the soil that can persist until favorable conditions return (Gul and Weber 2001). The seeds have the ability to maintain viability even under the most saline conditions (Khan et al. 2001).
Conservation / Management
Because native habitats on saline and alkaline soils that S. rubra prefers have been largely eliminated by agricultural activities, it is very important to protect any remaining habitats from degradation. Wetland protection laws that prevent draining or filling are vital in this regard.
Best Time to Search
The best time to search for Salicornia rubra is when plants have matured, though neither flowers nor seeds are needed for identification. At maturity, the stems will have turned scarlet and be easily visible. This is generally late summer into autumn but may be weather dependent.
Conservation Efforts in Minnesota
What is believed to be the largest and most stable population of S. rubra in Minnesota occurs at Salt Lake Wildlife Management Area in Lac Qui Parle County (Minnesota River Prairie Subsection). The population there is large, well-protected, and presumably viable. Other known sites are smaller, unprotected, and vulnerable.
Welby R. Smith (MNDNR), 2021
(Note: all content ©MNDNR)
References and Additional Information
Nelson, R. A. 1992. Handbook of Rocky Mountain plants. Fourth Edition. Roberts Rinehart Publishers, Niwot, Colorado. 444 pp. + illustrations + keys.
Vance, F. R., J. R. Jowsey, J. S. McLean, and F.A. Switzer. 1984. Wildflowers of the Northern Great Plains. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota. 382 pp.