Cape May Point, New Jersey is a favorite vacation spot. Lucky enough to have a place to stay, my family and I just returned from another amazing trip. Of course we spent plenty of time beside the ocean, sunning, swimming, and relaxing, but we also took the time to bike and hike some of Cape Mays wilder places. Located at the southernmost tip of New Jersey, Cape May Point is not only a fabulous place to enjoy the ocean, but this tiny beach town is home to tons of wildlife. Home of Cape May Point State Park, a prime destination for viewing birds, butterflies, dragonflies (swarms actually), ghost crabs, painted turtles, and bottlenose dolphin. If you are craving more wildlife, just a small bike trip north of Cape May Point lies The South Cape May Meadows Preserve, a newly restored coastal ecosystem managed by the Nature Conservancy. Both places are well-known to avid birders, but they are a haven for plant lovers as well.
What draws me into coastal ecosystems is the texture. The contrast between the evergreen and woody plants, and grasses. The masses of wildflowers, cattails, and fruiting shrubs. Imagine Van Gogh, utilizing certain brush strokes to create a landscape painting. Now imagine walking through his masterpiece. Get out your flip-flops, and camera and jump right in.
Juniperus virginiana (Eastern Red Cedar), a strongly architectural evergreen plant is abundant in the unfertile, sandy soils along the coast. It is strongly pyramidal to columnar in habit and birds treasure it for the abundant grey-blue seeds they produce. The depth of color cedars offer, and the textural quality of their needle like, scaly branches are additional reasons to cherish this plant. Another fruiting favorite often found covering the dunes is Myrica pensylvanica (Northern Bayberry). Rub its leaves when passing by and relish its distinctive fragrance. The grey-blue berries are late winter meals for birds, and used in the manufacturing of bayberry candles. Like the aforementioned Juniper, it can take infertile, sandy soils, as well as salt spray.
The dunes are also home to a delicate looking aster, Chrysopsis mariana (Shaggy Golden Aster). I saw this one growing right along the ocean side of the dunes, as well as in the freshwater wetland on the inland side of the dunes. It appears relatively tough, and has a long bloom time (late June – October). Sprinkled throughout the tidal wetland was Sabatia stellaris Pursh (Small Saltmarsh Pink, or Sea Pink). The rose-pink color catches your eye when hiking the trails, and the flowers appear as little pink twinkling stars among an ocean of grass. The floral show of Hibiscus moscheutos (Swamp Rose Mallow, or as I like to say, Marsh Mallow) was breath-taking en masse and we couldn’t help noticing their 5-6″ wide flowers from the car window on our way to the point. There are several forms of swamp rose-mallow, pink with burgundy centers and white with burgundy centers are most common, but there is also a solid pink form (subspecies palustris), and some red forms as well (mainly cultivated in the trade such as Lady Baltimore). They can grow 3-6′ in height, and are pollinated by insects as well as hummingbirds. Unlike the tropical hibiscus sold at supermarkets, Hibiscus moscheutos are hardy to zone 6 and will come back year after year.
As a texture fanatic, Spartina patens (Salt Hay Grass), flexing haphazardly in the wind, creating movement and contrast with the surrounding plants, was as important to the overall composition as all the structural plants, and flowers. I couldn’t get enough of it. As a filler plant, it lent the most to the aesthetic of this natural landscape.
There are several other native plants that I did not have time to document, many of which grow in our piedmont soil as well. Think about the daily conditions these coastal plants endure and apply that to your situation at home. The cedar, bayberry, and hibiscus all grow nicely in our area given the right soil and light conditions, and there are several asters, pinks, and grasses that mimic the same qualities of their coastal counterparts. Most of all, get out to visit these natural areas when on vacation. They are our last glimpse into what the land was like before it was settled, and can give us clues about how we can manage our own landscapes in a more sustainable and ecological way.