Without salt, some foods taste bland no matter what seasonings you add. If you live near a salt marsh on the east coast, from eastern New Brunswick and Nova Scotia south along the coast to Georgia, chances are you have plants that contain salt in their stems or leaves. Plants that live in a salty environment have to adapt by either excreting the salt or storing it in their stems.
Saltwort, also referred to by its genus name, Salicornia, grows on the edges of salt marshes and tidal creeks along the east coast from Eastern New Brunswick and Nova Scotia south along the coast to Georgia. There are also several species on the west coast as well as around saline and alkaline lakes on the Great Plains, in the Rockies, and the Great Basin. They are one of the first plants to colonize on bare tidal flats.
The name “Salicornia” comes from the word “sal,” which means salt, and “cornus,” meaning horn, from the stems on the plant that look like little horns. Common names vary from saltwort to glasswort, pickleweed, and marsh samphire. Members of the goosefoot family, they are characterized by succulent stems with leaves that are reduced to blunt scales, an adaptation to conserve water and protect themselves from dehydration. Lashed by salt winds and in some cases, immersed by incoming tides, they remain in place by spreading their roots underground to form a mat that prevents them from being uprooted by tidal waters. Minute green flowers are inconspicuous and borne in the hollows of the upper joints, followed by small seeds.
Salicornia is not the only plant from which salt can be obtained. Orach, another member of the goosefoot family, also grows in salt marshes and has a salty taste as well. The leaves are fleshy and shaped like an arrow. Small clusters of flowers grow in the leaf axils. The young leaves and tips can be used to add a salty flavor to food.
Saltmarsh cordgrass has adapted to a salty environment by excreting excess salt from its leaves. Try rubbing the leaf blade between two fingers and then lick your fingers. This process can also be used to test the saltiness of the water. If the water is mildly salty, you may not get much salt at all. At other times you may actually be able to collect salt crystals that can be used for salt. Cordgrasses often grow in the salt marsh with Salicornia.