Nov 13, 2020

Morro Bay Watershed Native Plant Series: Pioneer Sand Dunes and Foredunes

Morro Bay Watershed Native Plant Blog Series 

Because the natural areas of the Morro Bay watershed have been so well preserved, many native and rare plants grow here. Some of these plants are endemic to this area, which means that they are not found anywhere else in the world. To celebrate our area’s botanical richness, we are rereleasing our popular blog series on Morro Bay watershed native plants. For each blog post, we will explore a different plant community that you can find in the watershed, with suggested hikes, too! 

Morro Bay Sandspit Overview

This is our first exploration of a specific plant community found within the Morro Bay watershed. Today, we will learn about the pioneer dunes and foredunes communities located on the Morro Bay Sandspit.

Aerial of Sandspit
The Morro Bay Sandspit, as seen from Montana de Oro State Park. Photograph by Morro Bay National Estuary Program.

This area is probably the harshest environment for plants found in the Morro Bay watershed. Because of its direct exposure to the Pacific Ocean, the sandspit is a very windy place: the constant salty, sandy wind coming off the ocean keeps plants at a low, small stature. Since sand does not hold water very well, these plants experience moisture conditions similar to that of a desert. Because of these harsh conditions, the plants that grow here have developed various adaptations, meaning that they have evolved in specific ways that make the sandspit habitable for them. These adaptations include small succulent leaves that help with water retention, and stems that can root at the nodes, which helps to stabilize the plant in sand.

Pioneer dunes

Most of the sand dunes are not stabilized and continue to shift at a rate faster than most plants can establish themselves. These actively changing dunes are called pioneer dunes and exist on the side of the sandspit facing out towards the Pacific Ocean.

Pioneer dunes on the Morro Bay Sandspit. Photograph by Morro Bay National Estuary Program.

Since these pioneer dunes are the closest to the beach and high tide line, they contain only the most salt-tolerant species of plants, including beach saltbush (Atriplex leucophylla), beach-bur (Ambrosia chamissonis), and sand verbenas (Abronia).

Beach saltbush (Atriplex leucophylla)

This species is a common native found in sandy areas. The succulent leaves contain glands that excrete excess salt taken up by the roots due to the plant’s close proximity to the shoreline.

Beach saltbush (Atriplex leucophylla)
Beach saltbush (Atriplex leucophylla) seen up close.
Beach saltbush (Atriplex leucophylla), photograph by Catie Michel.
Beach saltbush (Atriplex leucophylla) seen from above.


Beach bur (Ambrosia chamissonis)

Have you ever gotten something sharp stuck on your sock or pant leg while you’re hiking? If you’re out on the sand dunes, it is likely a bur from this plant.

Beach bur (Ambrosia chamissonis)
A closeup of beach bur (Ambrosia chamissonis).
Beach bur (Ambrosia chamissonis)
Beach bur (Ambrosia chamissonis) from above.
Beach bur
These burs transport seeds, so that animals (and you) carry it elsewhere for dispersal. Photograph sourced from Native Flora of Estero Bay.


Sand verbena (Abronia maritima)

This species, along with beach bur, forms flat mats that grow low to the ground and are able to withstand the shifting nature of pioneer dunes.

Sand verbena closeup
A closeup of sand verbena (Abronia maritima).
Sand verbena (Abronia maritima) seen in context on a dune.
Sand verbena (Abronia maritima) seen in context on a dune.


Sand that accumulates above the high tide line is less influenced by salt spray because it is further away from the beach. The sand that accumulates at these higher elevations creates foredunes. These dunes are not actively changing and support a broader range of species that can be found in other plant communities.

Foredunes on the Morro Bay Sandspit. 

Here, you will find dune evening primrose (Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia), croton (Croton californicus), and dunedelion (Malacothrix incana).

Beach evening primrose (Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia cheiranthifolia)

Beach evening primrose
Beach evening primrose. Photograph by Roy Luck shared from Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

While similar-looking to sand verbena at first glance, beach evening primrose forms four-petaled flowers at the tips of each branch while sand verbena forms many small flowers arranged in neatly rounded heads. Laurie Avocado.

Beach evening primrose
Beach evening primrose. Photograph by Laurie Avocado from Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

Croton (Croton californicus)

This is a common ground-cover plant found in stabilized dunes.

A closeup of croton (Croton californicus).
Croton (Croton californicus) seen from above.


Dunedelion (Malacothrix incana)

A native cousin of the more commonly-recognized invasive European dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), dunedelion is less commonly found due to increasing coastal development.

Dunedelion (Malacothrix incana) seen up close.
Dunedelion (Malacothrix incana) seen from above.

Morro Dunes Complex

Higher up in elevation, the foredunes have become established over time, allowing for the coastal dune scrub community to exist. Species diversity is much higher here than in the pioneer and lower foredunes because there is a greater amount of fertile soil and water, and a much lower salt content. This community exists throughout a dune system known as the Morro Dunes Complex, which you can find continuously along the coast from Cayucos south to Montana de Oro State Park. Just look for these plants:

Silver Dune Lupine (Lupinus chammissonis)

This plant is common within the sand dunes system and is easy to identify by its silvery, hairy leaflets and fragrant, purple flowers that bloom in the spring.

Dune lupine
Silver Dune Lupine (Lupinus chammissonis) seen up close.
silver dune lupine
Silver Dune Lupine (Lupinus chammissonis) from above.
Morro blue butterfly
The plant also serves as a food source for the Morro Blue butterfly. Image Source: Native Flora of Estero Bay


Coastal buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)

This plant’s leaves are short, triangular, and fleshy in comparison to Eriogonum fasciculatum, a different species of buckwheat found in the coastal scrub plant community. Stay tuned for a post about coastal scrub!

Coastal buckwheat
A closeup of coastal buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium).
Coastal buckwheat
Coastal buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium) photographed from above.


Senecio (Senecio blochmaniae)

Senecio is commonly found on stabilized dunes and is easily identified by its single stem and long, wiry leaves. In the spring, its blooms are a bright yellow.

Senecio (Senecio blochmaniae) seen up close.
Senecio (Senecio blochmaniae) seen from above.

Wildlife in dune communities

When exploring the Morro Bay Sandspit to find these native plants, you might see these small shorebirds scurrying by. Western snowy plovers (Charadrius alexandrinus nivosus) are a threatened species that live on the Sandspit. They make their nests in small depressions in the sand, which are easily overlooked. Keep an eye out for these birds and their nests when you are walking, and be sure to allow them plenty of space as you pass by.

Image Source: Michael “Mike” L. Baird. 

To find out more about the native plants described in these blog posts, the Trees and Shrubs of California guidebook and the Calflora website are excellent sources of information. Our next Native Plants blog post in April will explore the coastal scrub plant community, a very common and pleasantly aromatic community found throughout our watershed.

The Morro Bay National Estuary Program is still hard at work, conducting science and education to help protect and restore the bay.

You can support the Estuary Program by purchasing Estuary Line gear from ESTERO. This locally owned and operated company typically donates a generous 20% of proceeds from Estuary Line gear to the Estuary Program, and they’re increasing their donation to 50% of proceeds between November 19 and December and 100% of Estuary decal proceeds to the Estuary Program. Thank you, ESTERO!

You can also support us by purchasing estuary-themed gear from ESTERO or from our Estuary Program store!