Bay Gets Big Boost from Tiny Seed Pods

By: News Staff Email
By: News Staff Email

October 27, 2013

RUSTY DENNEN
The Free Lance-Star

AQUIA CREEK, Va. (AP) - The ripe seed pods of wild celery grass float just at the surface this time of year.

Looking like short, fat strands of green spaghetti, each pod contains about 100 tiny seeds that carry the potential, and the hope, of re-establishing the important aquatic grass in other parts of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

One day earlier this month, a crew from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation harvested the pods on the creek in northeastern Stafford County for its Grasses for the Masses program. Chris Moore, a CBF senior scientist in Hampton Roads and captain of its 21-foot Carolina Skiff, steered the boat from the landing at Hope Springs Marina to a spot under the railroad bridge on the far shore.

"These are some of the best pods we've seen. They're ready," he said, peering into a patch of clear water dotted with emerald-green strands of wild celery swaying with a gentle current.

With him on this trip were Aimee Bushman, the foundation's grass-roots coordinator in Virginia who heads up Grasses for the Masses, and volunteer Meredeth Dash, clean water captain for Hanover County.

A simple garden rake, it turns out, is perfect for harvesting the pods in water too deep to wade. They find a nice spot with a sandy bottom along the shore.

"We're in a really good community of wild celery here," said Bushman, who's been working with the program for two years. The grass teems with small fish.

She and Moore do late-summer scouting trips to see if the pods are ready to harvest, and watermen they know call to give them a heads-up, Bushman said.

A few weeks earlier, "When you come out and these are at the surface," she said, clutching a handful of pods, "you see the smallest white flowers that glisten like diamonds."

There's about a two-week window for harvesting them. The pods grow at the end of a corkscrew-like vine they call a "pigtail," which helps the pickers spot them. Wild celery is not related to supermarket celery, and is also called tape grass and eel grass. The three fanned out just off the creek bank, with Moore pulling the boat along with them. Each gathered multiple bundles of about 10 pods, placing them in a 5-gallon bucket of water.

Wild celery, Bushman says, is among a collection of aquatic grasses that help protect young fish and crabs, trap sediment to improve water clarity, and reduce the force of waves to cut erosion.

There's a correlation between the grass in Aquia Creek and water quality, she says. Across the bay, the picture is not so good. Underwater grasses have declined sharply since the 1950s because of degraded water quality. CBF is helping to meet a bay-wide goal of 185,000 acres. Surveys found only about 48,000 acres in the bay and its tributaries last year.

"They are incredibly essential for the health of the rivers and the bay," Bushman said.

Within about 20 minutes, the trio gathered about half of the 325 pods needed.

Heading to another spot about a mile down the creek, they gather a few more bundles, then stop in front of a duck blind at another spot to fill out their quota.

Volunteers grow the seeds in the early spring for others to transplant at Mason Neck State Park along the Potomac River, and at Westover Plantation on the James River.

After harvest, the pods are stored in cold water until early spring when they are distributed to Grasses for the Masses volunteers across the state. The volunteers attend workshops, pick up their growing kits and tend the wild celery until it's mature.

The plants are then collected and transplanted in the Potomac and James rivers. About 160 volunteers were part of the program last year, Bushman said.

"You'd be amazed at the diversity of growers. There are a lot of teachers, students, churches, businesses - all trying to be stewards" of the bay.

The program "not only educates, but also restores, and it's a great opportunity for organizations like CBF to tap into our volunteer base."

The idea, she said, is to foster education and stewardship.

Dash, a former teacher and now full-time mom to two boys, was seeing the harvesting part of the program for the first time. She took a workshop, grew the plants, and helped plant them, but wanted to witness the final stage.

"It's so exciting. This is the last piece of the puzzle," she said. "I am so into this job. This is pure save-the-bay work right here."

She said her children help in the spring preparation for planting the grasses in large plastic tubs.

"They run in shouting, 'It's grasses time!' "

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Grasses for the Masses initiative helps to restore critical underwater grasses in the bay and its tributaries.

Participants grow wild celery in a simple grow-out system in their homes for 10 to 12 weeks. Afterward, the volunteers gather to plant their grasses in the Potomac and James rivers to bolster grass populations and help restore the bay.

Registration for 2014 workshops begins in January. For more information online, go to cbf.org.


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