Maritime forests once covered most of the shoreline along the Atlantic coast. These forests have been widely depleted because beaches have become a popular destination. Dry sand, poor and sparse top soil, salt spray, and strong winds create a harsh environment for the forest to grow. Only resilient species can endure these conditions. While some species can adapt to the salt spray, other species adapt by growing shorter, developing extra thick leaves or needles, strong trunks with twisting branches and extensive root systems.
Maritime forest on the Dune and Beach Trail
Natural succession is an important component of the maritime forest ecosystem. Starting as a result of a fire or extreme weather event such as a hurricane, the forest undergoes succession where small and tolerant grasses and shrubs colonize the area. As time goes by, larger shrubs and trees begin to populate the dune system. As a final step, larger trees, such as the Eastern Red Cedar are able to live in areas with common salt exposure in modified growth forms. This ecological process maintains the health and function of the maritime forest by allowing for a variable aged stand of plants and trees.
Maritime forests protect barrier islands from erosion and extreme weather events. They are an important stopping point along the Atlantic Flyway for migratory birds, provide shelter and water to diverse wildlife. Birds and animals who live in or pass through the maritime forest deposit seeds that are in part responsible for the varied plant species.