West Mabou Beach Dunes

August 30th, 2012 | by | 1 Comment
Published in Botany, Dunes, Landscapes
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West Mabou Beach

West Mabou Beach, on the west side of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, has a gorgeous sandy beach and striking dunes.

A real highlight on our east coast trip, the stunning beach, great swimming and some good birding,made West Mabou Beach Provincial Park an excellent nature viewing destination. Not to be overlooked, however, was the fascinating botany of coastal dune ecosystems.

Of course, trading off child-minding meant that our botanical explorations had to be short. Even so, Jocie and I were able to find a couple of unusual plants at the top of the beach where the American beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata) begins to climb down from the dunes.

Dunes at West Mabou Beach

Native American beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata) grows down from the dunes.

At West Mabou Beach, American beach grass is a native east coast grass. It can also be found on Vancouver Island, but there it is considered invasive and can seriously alter dune ecosystems (see Eflora BC’s American beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata) description of this plant). In Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, ongoing effort is being made to remove introduced American beachgrass and European beachgrass from the dunes.

Ironically, the two unusual looking plants that we found were both introduced.

Prickly Saltwort (Salsola kali)

Prickly Saltwort (Salsola kali) has a variety of common names including Russian thistle.

Common saltwort (Salsola kali) is a distinctive looking plant that has a variety of common names including prickly saltwort, Russian thistle, and prickly glasswort. The common name seems to be associated with the habitat in which the plant is found. Coastal species are more likely to be called saltwort or glasswort, while those found inland in fields go by thistle.

Both common names suit the appearance of the plant. Its leaves and stems are fleshy, suggesting a saltwort. The entire plant is very prickly which would suggest a thistle. Near the ocean, it is a pioneer species, adapted to living in the shifting sand at the edge of the dunes.

Jimsonweed (Datura stramonium)

The bizarre looking, prickly seeds of Jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) make it very easy to identify.

The large spiky seed pods of Jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) are also distinctive in appearance and make the plant easy to identify. The name “Jimson” is a shortened version of Jamestown and references the location where a group of  soldiers who ate the leaves of the plant in 1676 experienced 11 days of intense hallucinations. That being said, Jimsonweed is extremely toxic and contains tropane alkaloids including atropine, hyoscine, and hyoscyamine. Misuse of jimsonweed as a hallucinogenic has resulted in death.

Once you start looking at plants more carefully it becomes easier to appreciate (and spot) the species that don’t quite fit. Such was the case with these two non-native plants at dunes at West Mabou Beach. It’s amazing what you can find!


  1. Island Nature  :: West Mabou Beach Birding says:

    August 30th, 2012 at 11:20 pm (#)

    […] beaches to visit on Cape Breton Island. The combination of superb swimming, birding and botanizing (more on that in a later post) make it a natural destination for any naturalist. Ideally, it would be good to arrive early and […]

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