Why is a maritime forest different than other forests?

January 2004

Directly exposed to wind and salt spray, oceanside forests develop a sculpted look. The angle of trees indicates the direction of prevailing winds.

Directly exposed to wind and salt spray, oceanside forests develop a sculpted look. The angle of trees indicates the direction of prevailing winds.

Maritime forests are unique because they are made up of plants that can withstand strong winds, periodic flooding and damaging salt spray. These woodlands are found along coastal barrier islands and shorelines bordering sounds and rivers. On barrier islands, they’re usually found on the soundside.

On the Oceanside where sand dunes are small or missing, maritime forests form tightly woven canopies that slope toward the sea. The canopy’s sheared, sculpted appearance is created by prevailing winds and salt spray that stunts the growth of the trees. Plants that best tolerant these conditions are found on the outer edges where weather is most severe. Live oak, wax myrtle, yaupon, red cedar and red bay are hardy examples.

The canopy’s positive effect is that it acts as a windscreen to protect the forest’s less tolerant interior trees, such as American holly, beach olive, ironwood and loblolly pine. In well-protected maritime forests, maples, elms and ash trees also survive.

Native Americans and early island settlers established settlements in the shelter of these unique forests, where the woodlands also provided habitat for mammals, reptiles and hundreds of bird species.

Today, maritime forests are dwindling, primarily because of development; however, a number still exist in North Carolina, including Nags Head Woods and Buxton Woods on the Outer Banks; Theodore Roosevelt Natural Area on Bogue Banks; Huggins Island at Hammocks Beach State Park near Swansboro; and Bald Head Woods along Cape Fear near Wilmington.

The disappearing forests are extremely important ecologically and environmentally. They provide island stabilization, soil production, nutrient conservation, storm protection and ground water storage. Their eradication could have major impacts on ecosystems and surrounding water quality.