Work by David Nash, a North Carolina Cooperative Extension agent in Brunswick and New Hanover counties, not only helps his area’s beach dunes stay put, but might provide an alternative crop — sea oats — to struggling tobacco farmers. After determining through research that indigenous sea oats had a better survival chance when used to revegetate beach dunes than other strains, Nash introduced the float system for cultivating local sea oat seeds. The system, based on tobacco germination techniques, involves growing seedlings on floating greenhouse beds. He’s introducing the technique to farmers, both to provide alternative income and to end North Carolina’s dependence on sea oats grown outside the state.
In addition to setting up such educational efforts as the Master Dune Conservation Program, in which volunteers learn to care for and revegetate dunes, Nash also educates area elementary and middle school students during field trips to Brunswick County’s coast. Sea oats — named for their large oat-like summer plumes — colonize dunes’ seaward sides from Virginia to Florida and along the Gulf of Mexico. Flowering in their second or third year to produce wind-dispersed, sesame-sized seeds, they spread laterally several feet a year, providing in three seasons a dense cover that modifies the harsh beach environment, pioneering the way for other plants and animals.
Once widely used then out of favor due to high costs and difficulties in finding quantities needed for restoration and stabilization, sea oats apparently are enjoying a resurgence, thanks in part to Nash’s work. Oak Island has planted more than 500,000 greenhouse-grown sea oats to revegetate dunes, as well as seashore elder, bitter panicum, yucca, gallardia and coastal panicgrass.
In addition to his sea oats work, Nash is cultivating several thousand seabeach amaranth plants listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to be reestablished on South Carolina beaches by the agency’s Charleston office. Nash also is starting studies on wetland estuary plants for erosion control and revegetation.