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July 2021 EcoQuest: Just Dune It

This month at Selby Gardens we are opening We Dream a World: African American Landscape Painters of Mid-Century Florida, The Highwaymen. The artists featured in the exhibition capture Florida’s vibrant landscape in paint. Many of the works showcase Florida’s coast with crashing waves on wind swept beaches. For this month’s EcoQuest, Just Dune It, we are taking inspiration from these paintings to observe coastal elements and pay special attention to the grasses that help sustain Florida’s coastline. Coastal dunes are Florida’s first line of defense against storms and sea level rise – absorbing wave and wind energy and reducing damage to upland habitat and structures located on our beloved shoreline. Beaches are an integral part of Florida’s economy, supporting a diverse mix of attractions that fuel the region’s tourism and infrastructure. But, most importantly, they are crucial to the protection of marine and coastal ecology, providing essential habitat and food for many species of wildlife.  

Just Dune It illustrated

Coastal grasses can be credited as the biological engineers of our coastal dune ecology. They stabilize by effectively trapping sand in their rhizomatous roots, anchoring the dune in place. In order to thrive in such conditions, dune grasses must be tolerant of sand-blasting winds, drought, heat, low nutrients, salt-spray, and salt-water flooding.  

Dunes have three general vegetation zones that are determined by soil salinity. Grasses are commonly found in the frontal zone, landward of the highest tides. The back dune zone, or scrub zone, supports less salt tolerant grasses as well as shrubs and some trees. The forest zone is farthest from the ocean, where the vegetation transitions from maritime to non-maritime species. These zones can and do integrate, resulting in a diverse combination of zones based on environmental and mechanical interference.  

Representation of Coastal Dunes

Photo credit:  

There are a number of native grasses on Sarasota and Manatee County beaches that play a role in shoreline erosion control. Some species that we will be highlighting in our July 2020 EcoQuest include:

Distichlis spicata – Saltgrass

Muhlenbergia capillaris – Muhly grass

Panicum amarum – Bitter panicgrass

Paspalum vaginatum – Seashore paspalum

Schizachyrium spp. – Sea coast bluestem

Spartina patens – Cordgrass

Uniola paniculata – Sea oats

Please note that sand dunes are highly protected, and the Florida Beach and Shore Preservation Act (Chapter 161, Florida Statues) was established to preserve our coastline. Walking on dunes can lead to a citation in some areas, so please remember to make responsible observations and follow designated trails when visiting the dunes – and ask others to do the same.


Each month, we feature a new EcoQuest challenge to encourage the documentation of a specific species or group of species.


  1. Download the easy-to-use iNaturalist app on your mobile device, or visit on your computer.
  2. Set up a user account or sign in to join projects and submit observations.
  3. Visit the Sarasota-Manatee EcoFlora project, Just Dune It and click “join” on the upper right.
  4. Photograph plants anywhere in Sarasota and Manatee Counties. Take multiple photos to show important features for identification (overall plant, leaves, flowers, fruit, stem).
  5. Post your observations to iNaturalist.
  6. Check out your ranking on this month’s challenge online!


Help us document grasses that help sustain Florida’s coastline.

Learn about the Sarasota-Manatee EcoFlora Project HERE

Join the project on iNaturalist HERE!