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Aquarium of the Pacific - Online Learning Center - Species Print Sheet

Conservation Status:  Safe for Now

Land & Aquatic SpeciesCalifornia Cordgrass

Spartina foliosa Plants and Trees

California Cordgrass | M.Charter. Used with permission.
California Cordgrass - popup
M.Charter. Used with permission.

Species In-Depth | Print full entry

At the Aquarium

The plants in the Aquarium’s Shorebird Sanctuary were donated by the Stewards of the Los Cerritos Wetlands located in Long Beach, California.

Geographic Distribution

California coast to Baja California, Mexico, and southeastern United States


This salt tolerant plant dominates the lower zones of salty and brackish marshes where the soil is very alkaline or salty. While it may also grow in the high marsh, it is more common in the lower zone where its roots are continually bathed in salty water. There are large stands at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach, California.

Physical Characteristics

California cordgrass is an erect grass that has smooth, flat, tough blades on a thick base stem. The blades are up to 140 cm (55 in) in height and 8-12 mm (0.3-0.5 in) wide. They are a green-gray color. Flower stems are 30-120 cm (12-47 in) tall. Straw-colored spikes of densely packed flowers appear in 9-25 cm (0.5-9.8 in) clusters along the stalks.


Cordgrass obtains its nutrients by photosynthesizing.


California cordgrass reproduces sexually and asexually. There are male and female flowers. It spreads primarily by vegetative propagation year-round by forming new clones from its extensive underground rhizome system.

The plants flower from June through September. California cordgrass produces only a small quantity of pollen. What is does produce is spread either by self-fertilization or is transferred by wind or water to the wavy stigmas of female plants that catch the pollen. The success of seeds germinating when dropped directly onto the soil from the plant is limited.


When cordgrass growth dies at the end of the summer, the leaves release organic compounds and nutrients that are carried away by the tides. Leaf litter that remains mixes with the sediment and eventually layers of marsh peat are built up to where only high tides reach.


Cordgrass is a salt excretor. Its roots take in seawater and saltwater is pumped out through special pores in the leaves. The sun evaporates the water and the salt crystals left behind become visible on the grass blades. The plants need the daily tides to flush away the crystals.


These plants are an important habitat for the non-migratory endangered California Light-footed Clapper Rail, ( Rallus longirostris levipes), which not only builds it nest inside the blades of grass, but also lives its entire life among the plants. The greater the abundance of cordgrass, the larger the population of rails is likely to be.

Special Notes

Unwelcome on one coast; welcome on the other! Another species of cordgrass called smooth cordgrass, S. alterniflora, is an unwanted invasive species in California. In contrast, it is a welcome native species on the east coast.

Cordgrass blades are eaten by Canada geese, Branta canadensis.