Not a Pickle, and Not a Weed
By: Howard Lee
At a HandsOn Bay Area project many years ago, I learned about pickleweed and the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse that depend on its dense shrubs for cover from predators and as a food source. Pickleweed (Salicornia virginica) is native to California and other parts of North America. It grows in salty environments such as marshes and seashores. I had read online that it begins to bloom in July, so I set out to get pictures of the flowers.
From the end of the paved parking lot of Sunnyvale Baylands Park, I follow up a dirt trail that curves north along the eastern edge of the park. On my left, drones and model airplanes buzz above the ambitiously named Great Meadow. On my right, a waist high fence separates the park from the seasonal wetlands, and signs offer gentle but firm reminders to keep out of the protected habitat. Other signs warn drone pilots that they too may not cross. The wetlands here are seasonal, and at the height of summer, the exposed ground is hard and dry. About 100 feet beyond the fence, pickleweed is abundant. Steadying my camera on a fence post, I get some fair pictures with a long zoom, but this is too far to make out flowers.
Further north, a boardwalk leads out over the wetlands, and perhaps it will offer a better view of the plants. But before I get there, I come upon a patch of pickleweed that extends conveniently across to my side of the fence. Whether this is the work of a thoughtful park planner or nature recovering lost ground, I do not know. Either way, I am grateful.
Pickleweed is a succulent that grows to 3 feet in height. Its branching stems are about 1/4” to 1/2” in diameter and form into segments about 1/2” to 1” in length. The plants store water from the spring rains, and they will remain bright green well into summer. There are some red at the tips now, and the whole plant will become deep red by autumn. I can see that there are pale yellow flowers, and they are somewhere between tiny and microscopic about 1/16” across.
Foragers here in the Bay Area and elsewhere collect pickleweed which is also called sea beans or sea asparagus. The tender tips break off easily at the joint between segments. It is said to be salty and crunchy, so pickleweed is an appropriate name.
Pickleweed is also the main food source for the salt marsh harvest mouse, a rodent endemic to San Francisco Bay that is remarkable for being able to drink salt water. The harvest mouse is endangered because of habitat lost from land development, salt production, and other human activities. Research and conservation efforts are ongoing to preserve and restore wetlands where pickleweed grow and provide a home for the salt marsh harvest mouse.