A number of grass species belong to the genus Distichlis, including D. spicata, commonly called saltgrass, and D. palmeri, a rare type called Palmer’s saltgrass. These coarse grasses are tough, hardy and, collectively, quite widespread in North America. They have been utilized by humans as a food source in some areas for centuries, and are sometimes marketed as a healthier alternative to some domestic grains.
Saltgrasses may be nutritionally important in some areas to humans, wildlife and livestock because of their ability to grow in harsh, saline conditions -- hence their common name. Possessing specialized glands for the excretion of salts, saltgrass can grow in quite saline soils, though at the saltiest extremes it may manifest as a low, dwarf, clumping form. True saltgrass grows from Atlantic coastal wetlands to salt marshes on the Pacific Northwest shores.
In a technical profile of the plant commonly called saltgrass, Dictichlis spicita, the U.S. Forest Service lists it as being fairly rich in protein. The review cited studies such as one in North Dakota showing a crude protein value of about 8 percent for blooming saltgrass growing in a prairie environment at the beginning of August. Another study demonstrated a decrease from 15 pecent to 5 percent crude protein content by weight in Utah saltgrasses between the beginning of April to the end of July. A survey from estuary marshes in St. Louis Bay, Mississippi, suggested the mean caloric value remained relatively constant throughout saltgrass life stages, from sprouting to decomposition.
Indigenous Americans have utilized saltgrass in a number of areas. For example, the Cocopah Indians traditionally harvested Palmer’s saltgrass, Distichlis palmeri, in the delta of the Colorado River for food. As described in the 1992 book, “The Plight and Promise of Arid Land Agriculture” by C.W. Hinman and J.W. Hinman, an 1885 record by Edward Palmer suggested the harvesting area was about 40,000 to 50,000 acres in an estuary habitat. Some California Indians also viewed saltgrass as a source of food: The Forest Service notes that both the Chumash and the Temalpakh derived salt as a condiment from the plant.
Companies have begun marketing cultivars of Palmer’s saltgrass as an alternative to wheat. In “The Plight and Promise of Arid Land Agriculture,” Hinman and Hinman note the commercial variety NyPa WildWheat is rich in fiber, bran and essential amino acids, and lacks gluten, often an allergen. Also not much in evidence in WildWheat, according to the authors, are the compound called phytates, which can prevent some nutrients from being utilized by the body.
Saltgrasses play an important ecological role across their huge range, and are often used as food sources by wild animals. Ducks in the Channeled Scablands of Washington’s portion of the Columbia Plateau, for example, often feed on saltgrasses in isolated marshes. Pronghorn feast on saltgrass seeds. Livestock often pass over the coarse saltgrass in favor of more palatable forage, but may turn to it later in the season when alternatives dry out. It is often the major source of summer forage for cattle in U.S. saltmarshes. As with the increasing interest in saltgrass as a wheat substitute, commercial efforts are underway to market cultivated strains as livestock fodder.