Brackish Meadow

Brackish meadow at Napeague State Park
Stephen M. Young

Estuarine Intertidal
State Protection
Not Listed
Not listed or protected by New York State.
Federal Protection
Not Listed
State Conservation Status Rank
Critically Imperiled or Imperiled in New York - Especially or very vulnerable to disappearing from New York due to rarity or other factors; typically 20 or fewer populations or locations in New York, very few individuals, very restricted range, few remaining acres (or miles of stream), and/or steep declines. More information is needed to assign either S1 or S2.
Global Conservation Status Rank
Imperiled or Vulnerable globally - At high or moderate risk of extinction due to rarity or other factors; typically 80 or fewer populations or locations in the world, few individuals, restricted range, few remaining acres (or miles of stream), and/or recent and widespread declines. More information is needed to assign either G2 or G3.


Did you know?

Switchgrass, little bluestem, and big bluestem, common species in brackish meadows, are also characteristic of midwestern tall-grass prairies. Switchgrass, in particular, has multiple commercial uses. It is cultivated and planted for erosion control, maintained as a forage crop for livestock, used to make biodegradable plastics, and is being considered for the mass production of ethanol (McLaughlin and Kszos 2005).

State Ranking Justification

There are an estimated 50 extant occurrences statewide. The very few currently documented occurrences are small, but have good viability and are protected on public or private conservation land. Despite this protection, the community's trend is declining; it is threatened by development activities and exotic flora invasion.

Short-term Trends

Area of occupancy and community viability/ecological integrity is suspected to be declining, primarily due to development activities (e.g., parking lots, road construction, landscape fragmentation, and hydrologic alterations) leading to community decline and extirpation in urban and residential areas.

Long-term Trends

The number, extent, and viability of brackish meadows in New York are suspected to have declined substantially over the long-term. These declines are likely correlated with coastal development and associated changes in hydrology, water quality, and natural processes.

Conservation and Management


The most immediate threats to brackish meadows are from development activities (e.g., parking lots, road construction, and hydrologic alterations). Common reed (Phragmites australis) invasion is another immediate threat to some occurrences. Increased landscape fragmentation and presence of adjacent roads will increase vulnerability to invasion by additional exotic flora. Sea level rise may cause extirpation if occurrences abut hardened cultural features, but this may not be a threat in natural systems.

Conservation Strategies and Management Practices

Monitor the abundance of invasive species, particularly common reed (Phragmites australis), in this community and, as needed, control their encroachment. Minimize hydrological impacts associated with drainage ditches.

Development and Mitigation Considerations

This community is best protected as part of a large beach, dune, salt marsh complex. Development should avoid fragmentation of such systems to allow dynamic ecological processes (overwash, erosion, and migration) to continue. Connectivity to brackish and freshwater tidal communities, upland beaches and dunes, and to shallow offshore communities should be maintained. Connectivity between these habitats is important not only for nutrient flow and seed dispersal, but also for animals that move between them seasonally. Care should be taken to avoid groundwater contamination and to minimize hydrologic alterations during road construction. Development of site conservation plans that identify wetland threats and their sources and provide management and protection recommendations would ensure their long-term viability.

Inventory Needs

Searches for additional reported occurrences are needed, especially along the south shore of Long Island. Sites supporting indicator species such as Liatris scariosa and Fimbristylis castanea (e.g., Miss Annies Creek) should be visited. Potential sites include JFK Airport (Robert E. Zaremba, pers. com., 1995), Shore Parkway Brooklyn (David Hunt, observation, 1995), Cow Meadow (Robert E. Zaremba, pers. com., 1995), Mashomack Majors Harbor (Robert E. Zaremba, pers. com., 1995), Mashomack S of Manor House (Robert E. Zaremba, pers. com., 1995), Heckscher State Park (Eric Lamont, pers. com., 1995), Tobay Beach (Eric Lamont, pers. com., 1995), Orient Beach (David Hunt Field Surveys), Hubbard Creek Marsh (Dana D. MacDonald Field Surveys), Idlewild Park (Newsday, 1997), Jones Beach (Robert E. Zaremba, pers. com., 2000), Arlington (D ranked) (Robert E. Zaremba, pers. com., 2000), and Fire Island Wilderness (Lesley Sneddon, pers. com., 2009). Confirmation of the extirpation of the historical occurrence at Long Beach (Robert E. Zaremba, pers. com., 2000) is needed. Lesley Sneddon sampled two releve plots from Majors Point, Mashomack that need to be reviewed. The Orient Beach lead (from observation points and photos from a 1997 survey) needs a more critical evaluation of its identity. More faunal inventory is needed at documented sites. Brackish meadow habitat, as mentioned in rare plant element occurrences, should be checked. Sites, in addition to those mentioned above, are Conscience Point, Banding Station Pond, Appletree Neck Meadow, and Woodmere.

Research Needs

It would be useful to interpret old aerial photographs to determine the historical extent of this community, especially at reportedly extirpated sites. The impacts of off-road vehicles and visitor use should be evaluated.

Rare Species

  • Atriplex dioica (Thick-leaved Orach) (guide)
  • Bolboschoenus maritimus ssp. paludosus (American Saltmarsh Bulrush) (guide)
  • Carex hormathodes (Marsh Straw Sedge) (guide)
  • Charadrius melodus (Piping Plover) (guide)
  • Circus hudsonius (Northern Harrier) (guide)
  • Cyperus polystachyos var. texensis (Coast Flatsedge) (guide)
  • Helianthus angustifolius (Swamp Sunflower) (guide)
  • Iris prismatica (Slender Blue Flag) (guide)
  • Juncus ranarius (Seaside Toad Rush) (guide)
  • Laterallus jamaicensis (Black Rail) (guide)
  • Lithobates kauffeldi (Atlantic Coast Leopard Frog) (guide)
  • Plantago maritima var. juncoides (Seaside Plantain) (guide)
  • Rumex fueginus (American Golden Dock) (guide)
  • Rumex hastatulus (Heart Sorrel) (guide)
  • Sabatia stellaris (Sea Pink) (guide)
  • Salicornia bigelovii (Bigelow's Glasswort) (guide)
  • Solidago latissimifolia (Coastal Goldenrod) (guide)
  • Symphyotrichum subulatum var. subulatum (Annual Saltmarsh Aster) (guide)
  • Tripsacum dactyloides (Northern Gama Grass) (guide)
  • Tyto alba (Barn Owl) (guide)


New York State Distribution

This community is restricted to the estuarine portion of the north Atlantic coast region. It is expected to be scattered along the shore of Long Island and concentrated on the south shore, especially the south fork of Long Island. It may also occur on Staten Island. Documented occurrences are confined to the south fork of Long Island. The state range is well researched.

Global Distribution

Restricted to the estuarine and maritime portions of the North Atlantic Coast, Chesapeake Bay Lowlands, and reportedly the Mid-Atlantic Coastal Plain Ecoregions. The community occurs from New Hampshire south to North Carolina (NatureServe 2009).

Best Places to See

  • Napeague State Park (Suffolk County)
  • Hither Hills State Park (Suffolk County)

Identification Comments

General Description

A moist, moderately well-drained brackish (0.5-18 ppt) perennial grassland with occasional isolated shrubs that is typically situated in a belt at the upper edge of salt marshes bordering sandy uplands where it is the graminoid-dominated counterpart of salt shrub. It may also occupy the drier, less brackish portions of interdunal swales. Brackish meadows may be classified as an upland community based on the presence of several upland dune species, but are placed here because of the strong influence of the infrequent tidal processes and proximity to salt marshes. The community usually develops in areas with a unique combination of soils and hydrology on deep deposits of periodically windblown or overwashed gleyed sands. The community is usually flooded only during spring tides and/or during major coastal storms, approximately two to three times per year. Periodic sand deposition and volatilized saltwater deposition are thought to prevent dominance by tall shrubs via burial and top killing of shrubs. Soil salinity over long periods of time is relatively low but may show vast fluctuations over short periods of time, producing a constantly stressed environment. Salinity is periodically raised by the regular cycling of tides, inundation during spring tides and storm surges, and volatilized saltwater deposition. These epsodic pulses of salt result in woody plant die-off. Salinity is periodically lowered by dilution from rainwater and the presence of a thin fresh groundwater lens elevated over the underlying saltwater. The community usually occurs in close association with salt shrub and at slightly higher elevation than high salt marsh. It may develop into high salt marsh after occupation by salt-meadow grass (Spartina patens) and development of a peat layer in response to a more regular tidal influence.

Characters Most Useful for Identification

Brackish meadows are dominated by halophytic plants, including wetland and facultative wetland species, such as perennial graminoids and ephemeral herbs. Dominant species include switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), salt-meadow grass (Spartina patens), sea-blites (Suaeda spp.), and sedge (Carex silicea). Other graminoids present may include little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), spikegrass (Distichlis spicata), knotroot bristlegrass (Setaria parviflora), purple lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis), Virginia wild rye (Elymus virginicus), panic grass (Panicum amarum), twig-rush (Cladium mariscoides), cyperus (Cyperus polystachyos, C. dentatus), three-square (Schoenoplectus pungens), and black grass (Juncus gerardii). Characteristic herbs include whorled milkwort (Polygala verticillata), seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens), narrow-leaved goldenrod (Euthamia caroliniana), seaside gerardia (Agalinis maritima), pinks (Sabatia spp.), tall wormwood (Artemisia campestris ssp. caudata), asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), and wild germander (Teucrium canadense). Indicator herbaceous species at low abundance may include sedge (Fimbristylis castanea), salt marsh plantain (Plantago maritima ssp. juncoides), evening primrose (Oenothera parviflora var. oakesiana), and crabgrass (Digitaria filiformis). Sparse dwarf shrubs may include groundsel-tree (Baccharis halimifolia), bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), and beach-plum (Prunus maritima). New England blazing star (Liatris scariosa var. novae-angliae) may rarely occur along the drier margins of brackish meadows where it transitions to upland. The community is prone to weedy exotic species such as red fescue (Festuca rubra) and soapwort (Saponaria officinalis). Floristic composition can fluctuate dramatically over several years in response to the fluctuating soil salinities. Common reed (Phragmites australis) may become invasive in brackish meadows. Characteristic fauna include fiddler crabs (Uca pugilator and U. pugnax).

Elevation Range

Known examples of this community have been found at elevations between 3 feet and 7 feet.

Best Time to See

The showy graminoids that dominate this community typically bloom in mid- to late summer.

Brackish Meadow Images


International Vegetation Classification Associations

This New York natural community encompasses all or part of the concept of the following International Vegetation Classification (IVC) natural community associations. These are often described at finer resolution than New York's natural communities. The IVC is developed and maintained by NatureServe.

  • Switchgrass - Saltmeadow Cordgrass - Beach Sedge Salt Marsh (CEGL006150)

NatureServe Ecological Systems

This New York natural community falls into the following ecological system(s). Ecological systems are often described at a coarser resolution than New York's natural communities and tend to represent clusters of associations found in similar environments. The ecological systems project is developed and maintained by NatureServe.

  • Atlantic Coastal Plain Northern Salt Pond Marsh (CES203.892)
  • Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain Tidal Salt Marsh (CES203.519)

Characteristic Species

  • Shrubs < 2m

    • Aronia melanocarpa (black chokeberry)
    • Baccharis halimifolia (groundsel-tree)
    • Iva frutescens (salt marsh-elder)
    • Lyonia mariana (staggerbush)
    • Morella caroliniensis (bayberry)
    • Vaccinium corymbosum (highbush blueberry)
  • Vines

    • Toxicodendron radicans ssp. radicans (eastern poison-ivy)
  • Herbs

    • Cyperus polystachyos (many-spiked flat sedge)
    • Dichanthelium sabulorum var. thinium
    • Dichanthelium sphaerocarpon var. sphaerocarpon
    • Drosera intermedia (spatulate-leaved sundew)
    • Euthamia caroliniana (slender flat-topped-goldenrod)
    • Festuca rubra ssp. rubra (red fescue)
    • Fimbristylis autumnalis (autumn fimbry)
    • Hypericum gentianoides (orange-grass)
    • Juncus canadensis (Canada rush)
    • Panicum virgatum (switch grass)
    • Phragmites australis (old world reed grass, old world phragmites)
    • Sabatia stellaris (sea-pink)
    • Schizachyrium scoparium var. scoparium (little bluestem)
    • Solidago sempervirens (northern seaside goldenrod)
    • Spartina patens (salt-meadow cord grass)
    • Teucrium canadense (American germander)

Similar Ecological Communities

  • High salt marsh (guide)
    High salt marsh usually occurs at a slightly lower elevation than brackish meadow. It is often dominated by a single graminoid species, typically either salt-meadow grass or spikegrass, while brackish meadow is dominated by switchgrass with associates that include salt-meadow grass and sedges. A brackish meadow may develop into a high salt marsh in response to a more regular tidal influence if salt-meadow grass becomes dominant and a peat layer develops.
  • Salt shrub (guide)
    While both communities often occur in the same position in the landscape (upper fringe of tidal salt marsh), salt shub is dominated by woody plants and brackish meadows are dominated by herbs (mostly grasses) and lack shrubs.


Shrubs < 2m

Percent cover

This figure helps visualize the structure and "look" or "feel" of a typical Brackish Meadow. Each bar represents the amount of "coverage" for all the species growing at that height. Because layers overlap (shrubs may grow under trees, for example), the shaded regions can add up to more than 100%.

Additional Resources


Breden, Thomas. 1989. A preliminary natural community classification for New Jersey. in New Jersey's rare and endangered plants and animals, Karlin, E.F. (ed.). Institute for Environmental Studies, Ramapo College, Mahwah, New Jersey.

Edinger, G. J., D. J. Evans, S. Gebauer, T. G. Howard, D. M. Hunt, and A. M. Olivero (editors). 2014. Ecological Communities of New York State. Second Edition. A revised and expanded edition of Carol Reschke’s Ecological Communities of New York State. New York Natural Heritage Program, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Albany, NY.

Edinger, Gregory J., D.J. Evans, Shane Gebauer, Timothy G. Howard, David M. Hunt, and Adele M. Olivero (editors). 2002. Ecological Communities of New York State. Second Edition. A revised and expanded edition of Carol Reschke's Ecological Communities of New York State. (Draft for review). New York Natural Heritage Program, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Albany, NY. 136 pp.

Johnson, Anne F. 1985. A guide to the plant communities of the Napeague dunes Long Island, New York. Mad Printers, Mattituck, New York. 58 pp.

Maine Natural Heritage Program. 1991. Natural landscapes of Maine: A classification of ecosystemns and natural communities. Department of Economic and Community Development, State House Station 130, AugustA, ME.

McLaughlin, Samuel B. and Lynn Adams Kszos. 2005. Development of switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) as a bioenergy feedstock in the United States. Biomass and Bioenergy 28: 515-535.

NatureServe. 2009. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life [web application]. Version 7.1. NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia. Available (Data last updated July 17, 2009)

New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. New York Natural Heritage Program Databases. Albany, NY.

Nixon, S.W. 1982. The ecology of New England high salt marshes: A community profile. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Biological Services, Washington D.C. FWS/OBS-81/55. 70 pp.

Reschke, Carol. 1990. Ecological communities of New York State. New York Natural Heritage Program, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Latham, NY. 96 pp. plus xi.

Sneddon, L., M. Anderson, and J. Lundgren. 1998. International classification of ecological communities: terrestrial vegetation of the northeastern United States. July 1998 working draft. Unpublished report. The Nature Conservancy, Eastern Conservation Science and Natural Heritage ProgramS of the northeastern United States, Boston, MA. July 1998.

Sneddon, Lesley. Association for Biodiversity Information/The Nature Conservancy. 201 Devonshire Street, 5th floor, Boston, MA 02110. 617-542-1908 ext. 245.

Swain, P.C. and J.B. Kearsley. 2000. Classification of the Natural Communities of Massachusetts. Unpublished draft July 2000. Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Westborough. MA.


About This Guide

This guide was authored by: Aissa Feldmann

Information for this guide was last updated on: April 10, 2024

Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. Online Conservation Guide for Brackish meadow. Available from: Accessed July 19, 2024.