There are nine plant communities at Island Beach State Park. Although, the above picture might seem to indicate that the plant communities appear in a clear order from bay to ocean, this is a broad generalization. Some communities may be found in other places when conditions permit. For instance, freshwater wetlands can be found just east of the thicket on the A13 trail. Similarly, much of the tidal marsh in Island Beach State Park is found at the southern end of the park, with the middle and northern areas of the park being dominated by bayshore community.
Submerged Aquatic Vegetation
Eelgrass and widgeon grass are submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) that provide a habitat for many marine animals. Acting as a nursery, juvenile wildlife have higher survival rates here than in sandy soils. Migrating waterfowl, especially brant, are dependent upon this habitat.
Racks of eelgrass, discarded shells of animal life, roots from undermined cedar trees, and stands of Phragmites are representative of the bayshore community. In this area that battles erosion, plants protect the shoreline from damaging waves and winter ice, while trees serve as nesting sites for egrets and herons.
Tidal marshes teem with life. The sun’s energy, tidewater, and plants make this one of the most productive environments in the world. Grasses help build the marsh, creating habitats for a multitude of animals. The sheltered waters serve as a nursery and haven for many marine species as well as New Jersey’s largest osprey colony.
Freshwater wetlands occur in areas with depressions and a high water table. Vegetation provides cover for wildlife that depend on fresh water. This community is essential for muskrats, insects, turtles, and frogs. Migratory waterfowl find a variety of food in these areas. Visitors are surprised to find cranberries growing near the pounding surf.
The maritime forest is a nationally significant plant community. The diversity of plants is extremely unusual for a barrier island. Slow growing, salt-tolerant trees dominate. Atlantic white cedar, pitch pine, red cedar, American holly, willow oak, sweetbay magnolia, and the southern red oak create a unique habitat.
An array of wildflowers blooms along the road edge. This narrow area has the greatest number of plants due to seeds being introduced by cars, birds and man. Even though many of these plants are annuals, they create a patchwork of color during the summer and provide a habitat for rabbits, birds, and even red foxes looking for food.
The thicket is impenetrable to man, but ideal for wildlife. Decreasing amounts of salt spray and an increase in soil moisture support many berry-producing shrubs, trees, and vines. They provide cover and rich food sources for migratory songbirds and many other wildlife species.
The harsh environment is also obvious in the secondary dunes. Salt spray pruning shapes the trees and shrubs, creating the gentle curves of this landscape. The dry, salty soil is tolerated by beach plum, black cherry, goldenrod, poison ivy, and beach heather. This community provides the most colorful botanical displays during the spring and fall season.
Primary dunes are the first line of defense from the ocean waves. American beach grass, sea rocket, and seaside goldenrod survive salt-laden winds and dry soil conditions. Beach grass stabilizes the dunes, sea rocket provides protective habitat for beach nesting birds, and seaside goldenrod supplies a valuable food source for Mexico-bound monarch butterflies.