MSU professors promote native beach plants to halt erosion

By Steve Phillips - bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Two Mississippi State professors say native plants are the key to stopping the sand from blowing onto Highway 90.

They say beach plants that were once a "useful option" have now become a "practical necessity."

"It got established and each year it begins to walk further towards the water," said Dr. Pete Melby, as he explained a series of plantings along the sand beach in Biloxi.

For more than a decade, Melby and fellow professor, Dr. Thomas Cathcart, have been studying the use of native plants to reduce beach erosion.

Sea grasses planted near the Schooner Pier are the latest experimental plot along the shoreline.

"We found the most effective way of keeping this sand on the beach is just by planting large enough sea oats and large enough salt marsh hay plants on the lower beach. To go ahead and immediately stop that sand from blowing off the beach," said Dr. Melby.

Along with the more familiar grasses, small shrubs like the "marsh elder" are perfect for a beach landscape.

"It's coming in naturally and it's helping to hold the sand," said Melby, pointing to one such shrub.

Rows of sea oats quickly become valuable sand dunes.

"The velocity of the wind is slowed by the plants.  And the sand drops out," said Melby.

"You're not seeing any sand on the street, because this is all being stopped here before it gets there," he said, pointing to a nearby sand dune.

Keep in mind, the plant you see above the sand is only a small part of its erosion control capabilities.

"Part of it is actually due to the roots, which extend into the sand that act almost as rebar to hold the sand in place. And part of it is the effect of the surface vegetation on the impact and flow of water down the beach following rain storms," said Dr. Cathcart.

The first experimental beach planting at Miramar Avenue helped convince the professors that beach plantings are well worth considering as a means of keeping the sand where it belongs.

"It was not only attractive and provided habitat, but it also stopped the sand from blowing onto the highway," said Dr. Melby.

The MSU professors are helping develop a landscape and planting plan for the entire 26 miles of sand beach.  They're working with Harrison County supervisors and sand beach director, Bobby Weaver.

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