by Lucy Zipf
Black needlerush (Juncus roemerianus) is the dominant plant species in the wide, flat marshes that surround the Pamlico Sound in Eastern North Carolina, where I found myself working a few years ago, as well as much of the US southeastern and gulf coasts.
And yet, the vast majority of marsh ecology takes place in cordgrass-dominated marshes. This could be due to the high concentration of research universities in New England and California, where cordgrass marshes prevail. Or it could be because cordgrass marshes are generally home to more species, take more beatings from waves, and are considered a more iconic landscape.
But we, The Juncus People, have an alternate hypothesis: black needlerush is just a pain in the ass.
In its marshes, black needlerush persists in dense monocultures of around 400 live leaves per square meter and just as many dead. The leaves are stiff, fibrous rods rising up over a meter from the mud beneath. At the tip of each tall leaf sits the plant’s namesake, a needle like point that could pierce my summer, but not my winter, waders.
While I worked in these marshes the needlerush would leave countless tiny pinpricks all over my body, which took on an unfortunate rash-like appearance, and my legs would ache from having forced their way through its leaves. Field days were hard, hot, muddy and incredibly rewarding.
I fell in love with the work, the landscape, and the plant. I became one of them, The Juncus People. We, The Juncus People, read papers on cordgrasses marshes and quietly scoff at the simplicity. We take pride in our strong legs and pricked skin. We see each other at conferences and meetings and we reminisce about our time amongst the needles, even toasting to the rush. I work in a different system now, but growing up as a scientist in black needlerush forged me. I will always be a Juncus Person.
Lucy is a PhD student at Boston University applying historical citizen science data to ecological questions surrounding the effects of climate change on conservation areas. She lives in Allston, MA with lots of friends and one grumpy, orange cat.