For most people, a trip to the beach is all about relaxation. But the gear-laden trek from the parking lot to the beach blanket can be anything but relaxing. In fact, most visitors are so busy juggling kids, beach chairs, and coolers that they hardly notice the tiny, micro-desert they walk through on the way.
Yucca plants are native to hot, dry parts of North and South America, and are most widely distributed in the desert Southwest of the US. But I spotted this beautiful, blooming yucca just off the path to the beach on St. Simons Island, Georgia.
Nature ensures that vegetation creeps into every nook and cranny, but somehow, this yucca seemed out of place. Luckily, Taylor Schoettle’ s excellent A Naturalist’s Guide to St. Simons Island, which is my go-to source for all things outdoorsy on the island, helped me find the answer.
This guide explained that in the short distance from the parking lot to the beach, a number of specific plant ecosystems exist. Surprisingly, one of these zones is a “desert,” and this narrow band is where this yucca was growing.
Above the high tide line, the first sand ridge, called the primary dune, is the desert of the beach. Constant wind and salt spray, unrelenting heat and sunshine, shifting sand, and quick water drainage make living conditions harsh for both plants and animals. And like all deserts, the biggest struggle is for water.
Plants that survive on this dune have developed two different types of root systems to provide water. One is a near-surface, web-like system designed to quickly capture rainwater before it drains through the sand. Or like the yucca, a deep taproot struggles down to the water table. Either system works, but as the sparse vegetation indicates, life in this micro-desert is tough.
So on your next trip to the beach, unburden yourself at the primary dune, and have a look around the desert.
P.S. For those interested in the natural aspects of beaches, marshes, and barrier islands, A Naturalist’s Guide to St. Simons Island is an excellent resource. It’s comprehensive, easy to understand, and even though it’s specific to St. Simons, it provides lots of general information for any location.