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Eelgrass

Zostera marina

Eelgrass has long, ribbon-like leaves. (Maryland Department of Natural Resources)
Eelgrass has long, ribbon-like leaves. (Maryland Department of Natural Resources)

Eelgrass is a bay grass with long, ribbon-like leaves. It grows in the saltier waters of the middle and lower Chesapeake Bay.

Appearance:

  • Long, ribbon-like leaves
  • Leaves can grow to 4 feet long, but vary in size depending on the plant’s location
  • Wide, tube-shaped sheath at the base of each leaf
  • Thick, creeping rhizome with many roots and nodes

Habitat:

  • Grows in salty tidal waters
  • Usually found in shallow, sandy areas and occasionally found in deep, muddy areas

Range:

  • Ranges from the Honga River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore south to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay
  • Eelgrass and widgeon grass are the dominant bay grass species in the Virginia portion of the Bay

Predators:

  • Migratory waterfowl such as brants, redheads, widgeons, black ducks and Canada geese
  • Green turtles
  • Although they do not feed on eelgrass, cownose rays destroy eelgrass beds in many areas as they root through bottom sediments for their prey

Reproduction and Life Cycle:

  • Asexual reproduction takes place when the rhizome grows and winter buds called turions form
  • Sexual reproduction takes place in early summer, when female flowers are fertilized by drifting pollen and develop into seed-bearing shoots. The shoots eventually break off, float to the surface and release their seeds.

Other Facts:

  • Part of its scientific name, Zostera, means “belt” in Greek. This refers to the plant's ribbon-like appearance.
  • Provides important foraging areas and habitat for blue crabs. Juveniles and molting adults hide from predators among eelgrass beds.
  • Can be confused with wild celery. You can distinguish eelgrass by its leaves, which are narrower than wild celery’s. Additionally, eelgrass only grows in the saltier waters of the middle to lower Bay, while wild celery grows mostly in fresh water.

Sources and Additional Information:

  • Underwater Grasses in Chesapeake Bay & Mid-Atlantic Coastal Waters by Peter W. Bergstrom, Robert F. Murphy, Michael D. Naylor, Ryan C. Davis and Justin T. Reel
  • Life in the Chesapeake Bay by Alice Jane Lippson and Robert L. Lippson
  • Chesapeake Bay: Nature of the Estuary, A Field Guide by Christopher P. White
  • Bay Grass Key: Eelgrass – Maryland Department of Natural Resources
  • PLANTS Profile: Zostera marina – USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Places:




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