Thriving in the shingle: the story of Sea Kale

June 29th, 2011

KURESSAARE, ESTONIA–A very common perennial plant at the foot of the cliffs we are studying in Estonia is Sea Kale (Crambe maritima Linnaeus). It is beautiful with large, thick leaves and central stalks with bursts of white flowers, each with a purplish throat and yellow pistil. Turns out there is a bit of geological context and history of this edible plant in Western Europe.

Sea kale lives in a place where few other plants can survive. Shingle and cobblestone beaches have very little soil and are usually saturated at depth with brackish water from rain mixed with seawater. If the cobbles are mostly calcareous, as they are on Saaremaa, nutrient levels are low. Sea kale does well in this place because it is halophytic (tolerant of higher salinity than most terrestrial plants) and can collect enough nutrients because it has so few competitors. Its seeds float and so the plant can disperse via coastal sea currents. It is pollinated by numerous species of flies, beetles and bees, so it has no dependence on a particular pollen vector.

Sea kale was a popular vegetable in Europe during the 19th Century and before, but it fell out of favor as more easily cultivated plants became marketable. The new geological angle on sea kale is its ability to grow nutritious tissues in salty water. As freshwater resources become more scarce, biologists are looking at more ways to cultivate sea kale in marginal marine environments, and geologists are helping identify and preserve limestone shingle and cobble beaches for its continued growth. One of those places is Vilsandi National Park in western Saaremaa where we’ve been working this week.

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