There is a lot of what we don’t know about plant life by the sea. It’s just plants, we don’t pay too much attention to things and creatures that don’t move. Of course, more people prefer to see pinery near to their beach.

When I say “plant life by the sea”, I think of plants that grow within the intertidal zone (technically, a scientific term for a land zone under the physical impact of waves and also the area that is under water at high tide) and all plants that grow in the coastal area in general. You know – it’s all those things with leathery leaves that seem to be coated in some kind of a waxy matter and which usually smell really good, like laurel or softwood. Also, it would seem by the rule, even if they’re not softwood, they’re evergreens. I emphasize this fact specifically, because continental schools usually teach that only firs, junipers and pine trees are evergreens – Mediterranean plants species are usually not being taught and even when they do come up occasionally, the teacher would dismiss the mention of holm oaks as evergreens as an textbook error. Laurel, oleander and holm oaks are Mediterranean evergreens – oleander is mainly cultivated while holm oaks used to be the basis of highly productive and quality Mediterranean forests, mostly known as maquis or macchia. There are fewer and fewer maquis due to wildfires – which are quite common in coastal areas, but also due to agricultural deforestation. Also, the legend says that a lot of holm oak logs from the eastern Adriatic coast went into the construction of Venice. Latin term for holm oak is Quercus ilex:

Quercus ilex, fruit

Laurel, Laurus nobilis, a noble evergreen characteristic of the Mediterranean is tightly linked to the cult of Apollo and the meaning of winner. The term “laureate” comes from the Latin name of the plant. Why Apollo? In his Metamorphoses, Ovid tells us a legend of a nymph Daphne, pursued by Apollo, and to save her from this pursuit her father turns her into a laurel tree. Since then, laurel was Apollo’s favorite plant.

Apollo and Daphne, statue by Bernini, photo credit: via Wikimediacommons, by Livioandronico2013
Do you like pistachios? Pistachios that you eat are fruits of a plant Pistacia vera, which originated from Iran but has spread throughout Middle East. We do have a related species, Pistacia lentiscus, a taller Mediterranean shrub, but it seems to me that we also have some Pistacia terebitnhus which is more characteristic for Iberia. This is Pistacia lentiscus:
Doesn’t look familiar? If I told you that the domestic name for this plant is mastic tree or just mastic, would that refresh your memory? A mastic resin used to aromatize the Macedonian alcoholic beverage mastic and the Greek ouzo is derived from this plant. In Turkey, they put it in rice puddings and other types of delicacies.
Mastic resin, credit: by SA via Wikimediacommons 




Mastic resin is used in perfume and sanitary products manufacturing, and it also has proven antibacterial properties (especially in cases of Helicobacter pylori infections) thanks to isomasticadienolic acid – an active resin ingredient.
You can see two types of pine trees at the sea side – coastal, the more common species (Pinus pinaster) and a more uncommon one – stone pines, , which is not an indigenous species to eastern Adriatic, except – according to experts – on the island Mljet where they were possibly brought by sailors 500 years ago. Stone pines have edible seeds in their cones – the overpriced seeds sold under the same name. Stone pines have a distinctive umbrella-like treetop and it’s practically the trademark of Rome, like this one close to Circus Maximus:
Stone pine, Rome, source: Wikimediacommons
An endemic species of pine, Pinus heldreichii or Bosnian pine and Pinus peuce or Macedonian pine can be found in the mountainous Mediterranean area, specifically in the higher continental Herzegovina area, Montenegro, Albania and Greece.
Pinus heldreichii

More to the west and on the Adriatic coast, we can find Pinus halepensis, commonly known as the Aleppo pine – named as the Syrian city of Aleppo since the first described populations of this tree were the Syrian ones. However, this area is not limited only to Syria, but we can find this tree throughout Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Malta, Spain, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

Aleppo pines, source: via Wikimediacommons, by Christian Ferrer

On the limestone bedrock characteristic to the Mediterranean, we can also find Ephedra campylopoda, or joint pine. The term “ephedra” is actually a name Pliny used to describe horsetail which resembles these plants. This whole genus of plants is interesting because it’s somewhere in the middle between gymnosperms and angiosperms. The most important component of this plant is the alkaloid ephedrine which affects the involuntary part of the nervous system, the so-called sympathicus: it increases vigilance, endurance, reduces allergic reactions (especially pollen allergies), tightens blood vessels, increases blood pressure, improves blood circulation, reduces the lipid levels in the blood, relieves asthma.. However, before you rush to pick some joint pine, let me tell you that ephedrine is not harmless, it is poisonous in higher concentrations, and has been declared as a doping agent. It can be found in nose drops because it reduces the swelling in the mucous membranes.

Joint pine, Ephedra campylopoda
A plant that you most certainly know is the cypress, almost omnipresent in Van Gogh’s paintings. It’s Latin name is Cupressus sempervirens and the adjective sempervirens indicates that it is an evergreen. In Greek mythology, it is closely linked to the God of the underworld – Hades.

Cypress, cone

When you notice a beautiful plant with big yellow flowers around the seaside karst, or on the cliff side of the road while driving your car, you’ll know that it is Spartium junceum – Spanish broom or weaver’s broom.

Spanish broom-Spartium junceum

The Spanish broom was used in Dalmatia to make textile fibers, and in some places that tradition is still alive. It was also used to tie the grapevines in Dalmatia, and there is a common belief that there are no snakes in places where the Spanish broom grows. The plant is full of aromatic substances and the flowers smell beautifully, and it is believed to be an aphrodisiac (I almost wrote “aphrozodiac”!) and that women become more erotic and intoxicate the men with the smell of Spanish broom. Some say that even the biggest losers would get lucky when the spanish broom blossoms (May-June).

However, I wanted this post to be about some other herbaceous plants which grow just along the sea coast, on the rocks by the sea, on the beaches, in places of high salt concentration but I’m afraid they’ll stay shadowed by the beauty of these magnificent trees.
In fact, the plants that grow on saline soils are the real heroes of this story. The aforementioned trees are lucky and honored to grow on a very fertile soil terra rossa (red soil), but a few of these modest plants grow in really unattractive conditions. We categorize them as halophytes or salt plants – plants that have adapted to life in soils with high salt concentrations. Halophytes are an ecological term, and not a phylogenetic species – which means that these plants belong to different plant families, they’re not related, but can survive extreme life conditions on the sea side.

Crithmum maritimum– samphire, rock samphire or sea fennel is an edible plant with meaty and extremely salty leaves. In western Mediterranean countries and Greece, it is used as mangold, seasoning and even pickled. It is not very known as an edible plant in our area.

pickled samphire
Another edible, meaty and salty plant is Salicornia europea or glasswort. Another underestimated plant, also unknown as edible in our area:
Cooked glasswort
The next (and more known) plant species, usually put in glass jars is Capparis spinosa – or capers, which grow on the cliffs and in the rock walls of middle and south Adriatic (and in other parts of the Mediterranean, of course). If you ever encounter a bush of pretty, unusual flowers growing out of the rocks, look closer, it might be capers.
Caper bush with flowers

It is common to pickle or salt the flower buds of capers. There are different techniques of conserving capers – some leave them in sea water, and some prepare the salt water, while some don’t event salt – but pickle them. Regardless of the preparation, they are believed to be a strong aphrodisiac and some religious traditions (E.g. Judaism) have strongly controlled when, what and how to eat capers. Apart from flower buds, caper leaves and fruits are known to be used as food.

pickled caper

One of the most beautiful halophytes is Limonium narbonense – or sea lavender, which is somewhat reminiscent of the heather flower but is not related to it.

Sea lavender by Aneleh Zele, via Wikimediacommons
Sea lavender, by Hectonichus, via Wikimediacommons
This is just a small excerpt from the world of littoral or seaside plants. Just to get you interested and  familiar with a few plants you can recognize when you visit the seaside, and maybe even explain them to your children while there. Once you get interested, you’ll look around and inquire about other plants you find, trust me, I’m a biologist. 

Jelena Kalinić, MA in comparative literature and graduate biologist, science journalist and science communicator, has a WHO infodemic manager certificate and Health metrics Study design & Evidence based medicine training. Winner of the 2020 EurekaAlert (AAAS) Fellowship for Science Journalists. Short-runner, second place in the selection for European Science journalist of the year for 2022.