What Is A Maritime Forest – Trees And Shrubs For Maritime Environments

Maritime Forest Over Murky Water
(Image credit: Aaron Hawkins)

What is a maritime forest? It is a forest made up of trees that thrive near the ocean. These forests are usually narrow bands of trees that grow on stabilized dunes or barrier islands. These forests are also called maritime hammocks or coastal hammocks. 

What are the most common trees and shrubs for maritime forests? Read on for info on maritime forest plants. 

What Is a Maritime Forest?

Maritime forest trees grow very close to the ocean. That means that trees and shrubs for maritime areas must tolerate salt, as well as wind and drought. The maritime areas with tropical maritime climates are found in warmer areas, while colder zones are home to temperate species.

Most of the American tropical maritime climates in this country are found in Florida, with its long coastline. It has almost 500 thousand acres of barrier islands, many of which are occupied by tropical maritime trees. But you can find maritime forests sporadically along the entire Atlantic coast.

Tropical Maritime Trees

There are a variety of trees that survive in tropical maritime climates. Which trees and shrubs can thrive depend on different factors including how well they tolerate the growing conditions? These include powerful winds, sandy soils without many nutrients, erosion and an unpredictable supply of freshwater. 

Tropical maritime trees that grow closest to the ocean get the worst of the winds and salt spray. This exposure prunes terminal buds in the top of the canopy, encouraging lateral buds. This creates the iconic curved shape of maritime forest canopies and protects the inner trees.

Trees and Shrubs for Maritime Areas

The present location and extent of today's maritime forests were established approximately 5000 years ago, becoming stabilized as sea level rise declined from 12 inches (0.3 m.) to 4 inches (0.1 m.) per century.

The trees dominating maritime forests are generally species of broad-leaved evergreen trees and shrubs. As sea oats and other coastal plants grow in and stabilize a dune, more woody species are able to survive. 

The species of maritime forest trees vary among locations. Three that are commonly present in Florida forests are southern live oak (Quercus virginiana), cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto), and redbay (Perrea borbonia). The understory usually includes diverse small woody species and shorter shrubs. In the southern areas, you will also find silver palm (Coccothrinax argentata) and blackbead (Pithecellobium keyense).

Teo Spengler

Teo Spengler has been gardening for 30 years. She is a docent at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Her passion is trees, 250 of which she has planted on her land in France.