As Hurricane Ophelia battered the North Carolina coast last fall, tearing at fragile beaches from Brunswick to Carteret counties, David Nash knew this would be a banner year for sea oats.

Nash, an agent with the Cooperative Extension Service in southeastern North Carolina, has in recent years cultivated a sea oats industry in North Carolina. The plants help stabilize beach dunes as well as provide an alternative crop for some farmers. “The ocean takes what it wants, and barrier islands are always shifting,” he says. “But since man has moved in, we have created a system that needs to be managed.”

With their extensive root structures and wide heads that trap blowing sand, sea oats are perfect to maintain dune lines, Nash says. But no one grew sea oats in the state, and plants imported from Florida are genetically different and don’t seed well in North Carolina. So he adapted a system used to grow tobacco seedlings—seeds and a nutrient-rich soil mixture are placed in foam containers floating in water—and several years ago convinced the town of Oak Island to build a greenhouse to grow North Carolina sea oats. Now, municipal operations in Oak Island and Carolina Beach, as well as a handful of private growers, produce about a million sea oat seedlings a year.

Nash also works with NC State horticulture professor Dr. Frank Blazich and crop science professor Dr. Paul Murphy to improve sea oat production. Murphy is looking to modify the plants genetically so they can be grown inland and their seeds harvested away from the peril of ocean storms. (Ophelia wiped out about a third of the state’s sea oat seed production last year.) Meanwhile, Blazich’s research has helped increase the germination rate of the seedlings by adjusting greenhouse temperature and moisture levels.

Blazich and Nash also are studying other native beach plants, such as bitter panicum and seashore elder, to intersperse with sea oats along the beach for a more diverse habitat and stronger dunes. “We’re just trying to put back what nature would normally establish,” Nash says.

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