Pennywort is a pioneer. This native plant picks places where other plants don’t grow.

Sand dunes along the North Carolina coast are a favorite spot. Here, salt water sprays, soil shifts, and winds blow strong — few plants tolerate these extreme conditions. But pennywort, Hydrocotyle bonariensis, thrives in a changing environment.

Its shiny leaves shed the salty water. Its running rhizomes send out roots into the loose soil. Its low height withstands high winds.

Pennywort softens tough spots just by growing there. As pennywort lives and dies, it changes the chemistry of the soil. Its long rhizomes, sometimes stretching 10 feet, carry nutrients that leach into the ground.

But most of us overlook pennywort’s benefits. We see it as a weed — the tiny, white flowers a hindrance to our manicured lawns. We pull it up, but we seldom get every root. We spray it with chemicals, but pennywort resists herbicides.

If we just give pennywort a little time, this pioneer plant will prepare a better place for others to grow. It doesn’t want to be pampered in posh gardens. Pennywort prefers to tackle disturbed areas at their worst and move on when the going gets too good.

Several species

The pennywort growing in the dry, sandy areas on our coast is beach pennywort, or Hydrocotyle bonariensis. But marsh pennywort, Hydrocotyle umbellate, grows in moist environments, such as inland marshes and ditches.

Leah Hughes is an associate editor at Our State magazine.

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