This article is about saltwater eelgrasses. For freshwater eelgrasses, see Vallisneria.
Zostera (marine eelgrasses)
Zostera marina
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
(unranked): Angiosperms
(unranked): Monocots
Order: Alismatales
Family: Zosteraceae
Genus: Zostera
Global distribution map of Zostera. Green indicates presence.
  • Alga Tourn. ex Lam.
  • Heterozostera (Setch.) Hartog
  • Nanozostera Toml. & Posl.
Zostera sp in Mussel Ridge Channel, Birch Island, Maine

Zostera is a small genus of widely distributed seagrasses, commonly called marine eelgrass or (outside North America) simply eelgrass. The genus Zostera contains 15 species.


Zostera marina is found on sandy substrates or in estuaries, usually submerged or partially floating. Most Zostera are perennial. They have long, bright green, ribbon-like leaves, the width of which are about 1 centimetre (0.4 in). Short stems grow up from extensive, white branching rhizomes. The flowers are enclosed in the sheaths of the leaf bases; the fruits are bladdery and can float.

Zostera beds are important for sediment deposition, substrate stabilization, as substrate for epiphytic algae and micro-invertebrates, and as nursery grounds for many species of economically important fish and shellfish. Zostera often forms beds in bay mud in the estuarine setting. It is an important food for brant geese and wigeons, and even (occasionally) caterpillars of the grass moth Dolicharthria punctalis.

The slime mold Labyrinthula zosterae can cause wasting disease of Zostera, with Z. marina being particularly susceptible, causing a decrease in the populations of the fauna that depend on Zostera.

Zostera is able to maintain its turgor at a constant pressure in response to fluctuations in environmental osmolarity. It achieves this by losing solutes as the tide goes out and gaining solutes as the tide comes in.


The genus as a whole is widespread throughout seashores of much of the Northern Hemisphere as well as Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia and southern Africa. The discovery of Z. chilensis in 2005 adds an isolated population on the Pacific coast of South America to the distribution. One species (Z. noltii) occurs along the land-locked Caspian Sea.

Current Status

Eelgrass once grew in abundance in Barnegat Bay, New Jersey, where it was harvested, dried and used for insulation in houses, such as the governor's summer mansion in Island Beach State Park. A blight decimated the eelgrass, which ended harvesting of the plant. The plant is making a gradual comeback.


Eelgrass has been used for food by the Seri tribe of Native Americans on the coast of Sonora, Mexico. The rhizomes and leaf-bases of eelgrass were eaten fresh or dried into cakes for winter food. It was also used for smoking deer meat. The Seri language has many words related to eelgrass and eelgrass-harvesting. The month of April is called xnoois ihaat iizax, literally "the month when the eelgrass seed is mature".[2]

Zostera has also been used as packing material and as stuffing for mattresses and cushions.

On the Danish island of Læsø it has been used for thatching roofs. Roofs of eelgrass are said to be heavy, but also much longer-lasting and easier to thatch and maintain than roofs done with more conventional thatching material.

Zostera can also be utilized to produce biomass energy using the Jean Pain method.


Accepted species[1]
  1. Zostera angustifolia (Hornem.) Rchb. - Russian Far East, British Isles, Denmark, Sweden
  2. Zostera asiatica Miki - Russian Far East, Japan, Korea, NE China
  3. Zostera caespitosa Miki - Russian Far East, Japan, Korea, NE China
  4. Zostera capensis Setchell - Madagascar; Kenya to Cape Province
  5. Zostera capricorni Ascherson - New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand
  6. Zostera caulescens Miki - Russian Far East, Japan, Korea, NE China
  7. Zostera chilensis (J.Kuo) S.W.L.Jacobs & D.H.Les - Chile
  8. Zostera japonica Ascherson & Graebner - Russian Far East, Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam
  9. Zostera marina L. - shores of North Pacific, North Atlantic, British Isles Mediterranean, Black Sea, Sea of Okhotsk
  10. Zostera mucronata den Hartog - Australia
  11. Zostera muelleri Irmisch ex Ascherson - Australia
  12. Zostera nigricaulis (J.Kuo) S.W.L.Jacobs & D.H.Les - Australia
  13. Zostera noltii Hornem. - shores of Northeastern Atlantic, Mediterranean, Black Sea, Caspian Sea
  14. Zostera novazelandica Setchell - New Zealand
  15. Zostera polychlamys (J.Kuo) S.W.L.Jacobs & D.H.Les - Australia
  16. Zostera tasmanica Martens ex Ascherson - Australia


  1. 1 2 Kew World Checklist of Selected Plant Families
  2. Felger, Richard; Moser, Mary B. (1985). People of the Desert and Sea: Ethnobotany of the Seri Indians. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
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