Beach sand is a hostile environment for plants – high salt levels, intense heat and light, poor nutrient availability, lack of moisture retention and instability present a very challenging set of obstacles to establishment and growth.
The plants that grow best in beach sand are hardy ones, so-called pioneer plants. They are the specialists which move into seemingly uninhabitable situations. Once established their presence stabilizes and alters the micro-habitat, making it more amenable for others to follow.
What Type of Plants Can Grow in Sand?
The plants that grow best in coastal sandy areas are those that have adapted to survive and thrive in extreme conditions.
- Salt tolerant, or halophytic, plants
- Direct sun tolerant plants
- Drought tolerant, or xeric, plants
- Wind tolerant plants
- Pioneer plants with specialist adaptations (coastal strand vegetation)
Salt tolerant plants often have protective waxy or glossy coatings which help by repelling salt water and spray. Plants with small leaves do better as they are less vulnerable to desiccation in extreme heat and dryness. Water-filled tissues and other adaptions to preserve and maximize available water also helps.
Coastal strand vegetation is a term that refers to the collection of plants that form in loose sand along shores and coastal dunes just above the high tide mark. They often have a combination of these adaptations and features. They are usually native, endemic plants, but interestingly the general structure and appearance of coastal strand vegetation tend to be similar all over the world.
Of course, if the beach you are wondering about is in a freshwater lake, having such salt-tolerant characteristics will not be required.
What Plants Grow in Beach Sand?
Some examples of plants that grow in beach sand:
American Beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata)
This perennial grass has several adaptations to the stresses of dune environments. It has long narrow leaves that can roll or fold when faced with extreme heat, light, or wind.
The stomata are located on the rough upper surface of the leaves which can be turned away from the wind.
American beachgrass grows on the foredunes – on the loose sand and the most unstable zone of the coastal strand. It is often the only plant present and able to grow in such conditions.
Beach Sand Verbena (Abronia umbellata)
This prostrate perennial (or sometimes annual) flowering plant has thick succulent leaves, which can be deciduous in response to environmental stress. It occurs on dunes below the scrub zone. It is low growing and can form carpets of blooms. It’s densely clustered globules of pink or purple flowers are fragrant at night, which attracts moths.
Beach sand verbena is adapted to not only survive the windy shore environment but to benefit from it. The seeds are surrounded by large paper wings which enable them to disperse by the wind. Wind dispersal distances of up to 120 feet have been recorded.
Beach Bur (Ambrosia chamissonis)
This large, sprawling perennial plant is a type of ragweed. Also known as silver burr ragweed or silver beachweed, it has woolly silvery green leaves, which help protect against intense sunlight and ridged stems. It occurs on the dunes along the leading line of vegetation. It grows in large clumps and is very tolerant of high light and salt levels.
Beach Saltbush (Atriplex leucophylla)
A small, sprawling, low growing perennial herb with branching stems and rough oval greyish green leaves with white-tinged scaly surfaces. Beach saltbush is a type of goosefoot. It occurs on the foredunes close to the shoreline and is highly drought and salt tolerant. Excess salt is excreted by glands in the succulent leaves. It occurs in both coastal and wetland settings.
Searockets (Cakile edentula)
A native perennial with pretty pale pink, purple or white flowers and fleshy leaves. It occurs on the high tide lines or in the dunes and is tolerant of poor nutrient levels and strong winds. The seeds break open and are dispersed over great distances by water.
Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana)
An introduced species native to South America. It occurs in a wide range of habitats, including coastal dunes and sandy areas. It spreads vigorously, producing lots of seeds that are light and dispersed great distances by the wind.
The seedlings have adaptations that provide drought resistance, including increasing water uptake and reducing water loss by reducing specific leaf area.
The invasive nature of the plant poses a risk to native biodiversity.
Palm Trees (Arecaceae)
The famous palm tree can be seen growing directly in beach sand. There are a number of different types of palm trees, some grow tall while others grow wide, almost as if they were a bush. There are over 100 different species of palm plants, not all live in beach sand though. Typically, palm trees grow in southern areas that have a subtropical and tropical climate. In many warm locations across the world, their beaches will have palm trees growing in the sand. The United States sees the majority of its palm trees in the southeastern and southwestern areas, and of course, many areas bordering the ocean.
Best Plants for Seaside Gardens
Here are some planting ideas for your beachside garden. The conditions may not be quite as harsh as the foredunes, but these plants will be hardy enough to deal with the salt spray and sea breezes.
Hydrangea (Hydrangea spp.)
Hydrangeas are big, colorful shrubs with impressive blooms. They are tolerant of sandy soils but the bigleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) is particularly suitable for coastal environments because it is more tolerant of salt than other species.
The flowers can be pink, white, blue, or purple depending on the pH of the soil – acid soil produces blue flowers, alkaline soil produces pink ones.
The shrub has a fast growth rate and grows to 3 to 6 feet tall and wide.
They prefer full sun or partial shade but are not drought tolerant so will need to be kept well watered.
Lavender (Lavandula spp.)
Lavender looks beautiful and will fill your garden with that well-known relaxing herby scent. Easy to grow, these plants do well in sunny sandy conditions.
Yarrows (Achillea spp.)
Pretty coastal flowers available in a variety of colors and easy to grow, these plants are a good choice for a sunny seaside garden and have a fair tolerance to drought and wind but may be better suited to areas with a little more protection.
Sea oats (Uniola paniculata)
An attractive ornamental drought-tolerant perennial grass, this might be a good option for ground cover in sandier less stable areas of your garden.
The delicate seed heads move prettily in a sea breeze and the leaves turn a nice bronze color in the fall.
This grass prefers full sun and loose sand but is quite resilient and thrives in a wide range of conditions. As such you might need to be careful with spread – a late summer cut will help to keep it under control.
Juniper Trees (Juniperus communis var. depressa)
This dense, native, evergreen tree or shrub will be well suited to a seaside garden and are a great choice in spots where you want to create some privacy.
It naturally grows in a variety of habitats, including coastal banks and dunes. It is slow-growing but very tolerant of extreme conditions and can grow up to a height of 25 feet.
The cones provide food for native birds so this is a good option if you want to attract birds to your garden.
Geranium (Pelargonium spp.)
Geraniums are happy little blooms that can be used in borders to brighten up your coastal garden.
Sea Pinks (Armeria maritima)
These pretty pink or white flowers provide groundcover and color in a seaside garden. Plant in full sun and moderately watered.
Ornamental Onions (Allium spp.)
These large tall globular flowers are showy and available in a range of colors. They do well in sandy soils in full sun.
Fescue grasses (Festuca spp.)
A good choice for coastal lawns because they need less water and nutrients than more ornamental types.
Eastern Showy Aster (Eurybia spectabilis)
A tall, native, perennial herb with pretty purple daisy-like flowers. Easy to grow in dry, sandy grassland and tolerant of wind and salt spray.
Plants that grow in beach sand in dunes have very particular adaptations, but every plant has its own set of optimal growing conditions, and some plants are fussier about them than others!
Whether you’re out on a walk or perusing your garden, start to notice the variety of conditions and the plants that are growing in them.
Seaside gardening can be a challenge, but getting to know the light, moisture, and soil conditions in all of the different areas of your garden is a great start. You can then think about tailoring your planting choices and researching plants for specific spots.
Don’t forget to plant buffers of deep-rooted plants to protect your garden from erosion if it gets exposed, and try to do your bit for local wildlife biodiversity by incorporating lots of native plants and varieties in your plantings.
Jamie is the founder of The Backyard Pros. When he was 15 years old he started working at a garden centre helping people buy plants, gardening products, and lawn care products. He has real estate experience and he is a home owner. Jamie loves backyard projects, refinishing furniture, and enjoys sharing his knowledge online.