People who don't give much thought to the beach, except to enjoy it during a vacation, usually think of sand dunes as just big piles of sand, but that is not true. Without sea oats, there wouldn't be any sand dunes. Sea oats hold the dunes in place, and make it possible for the dunes to get larger, offering more and more protection for the beach as they grow larger and larger.
Sea oats grow on dunes from Florida to Virginia and then around the entire Gulf to eastern Mexico and into the northern part of the West Indies. They are very salt tolerant and they thrive close to the sea. Their large system of underground roots and stems helps to reduce the erosion of the sand dunes.
Leaves grow to a maximum of about two feet in length and they are about an inch wide. Above the ground, stems on sea oats grow up to six feet tall, and they contain graceful, drooping clusters which are called panicles. Panicles contain seed heads which are called spikelets.
Cereal can be made from the dried and cooked seeds. Seed heads which have matured are used in floral arrangements, such as pretty wreaths. However, it is not permitted to pick them for those purposes on the Alabama Gulf Coast because they are protected by law.
It is against the law to pick the wild plants, but you can easily buy them from native plant nurseries which have permits to sell them.
Sea oats withstand heat, salt, wind and poor soil very well, but pedestrian traffic can cause major damage. Most municipalities have enacted laws that prohibit walking on sand dunes and most public beaches now have boardwalks around and over the dunes.
After a strong storm, beach towns go into crisis mode to rebuild the dunes. This can be labor intensive and time consuming. During the last decade, it has been hard for beach towns like Orange Beach and Gulf Shores to get ahead of all of the bad weather events.
Sea oats provide a significant service of stabilizing the ocean shoreline and sand dunes. Without beach sea oats, beaches lose ground. Before the best beaches were commercialized this was not really a problem. Extreme weather events just moved the beaches. With commercialization there is nowhere for the beach to move. Without sand dunes and the sea oats that hold them in place, the sea would eventually consume what man has built.