French Impressionist Edgar Degas was a great painter, but I have reason to doubt that he could fully appreciate a New England beach in early June.  

“What a horrible thing,” he wrote, “yellow is.”  It’s a surprising statement for an artist, and I’m afraid I can’t agree. Yellow is the color of a beautiful plant now adorning Island dunes, though you must be quick to catch the splendid flowering of Hudsonia. This beach bum shines for only a brief week or so. 

American naturalist Witmer Stone, in 1910, described it well. “This low, white, woolly shrub, seldom over six inches in height, forms patches of considerable extent over the wind-swept sand dunes of the coast, which it so closely resembles in color as to be inconspicuous, except in late spring when its branches are covered with little starry yellow blossoms.”

Known more commonly as beach heather, sand heather, beach heath, American heath and also as poverty grass, this dwarf shrub is spreading its golden glory, blanketing the back dunes in color. East Tashmoo beach has a great abundance and is my inspiration.

The latter alias, poverty grass, may have come about due to this plant’s ability to survive in the poorest, sandiest and most nutrient-low soils. Henry David Thoreau explained the nickname this way when he noticed Hudsonia in 1849 on Cape Cod: “The sand by the roadside was partially covered with bunches of a moss-like plant, Hudsonia tomentosa, which a woman in the stage told us was called poverty grass because it grew where nothing else would.”

To live in the difficult dune environment, Hudsonia has developed deep roots to hold it in place. Its scale-like leaves reduce water loss, as do the woolly hairs on those leaves.

While Hudsonia may be poor in stature and soils, it is rich in value. It fixes the sandy soil in place with its deep roots, adding stability to the dunes. It is also a nitrogen fixer, adding to the richness of its environment, and bringing nutrients for other plants to use.

The seemingly perfect plant does have its vulnerabilities, though, being easily trampled and killed through crushing by foot or vehicle. Nor is it the most well-known in its scientific family, being outshined by a cousin in another genus. Hudsonia is part of the Cistaceae family, which contains seven genera and 175 species. Its cousins, members of the genus Cistus, have been found to be even more useful. These plants are the source of labdanum, a fragrant resin used in the scent and incense industries. Most fascinating about the relative is how the resin is collected. 

A digression, but an interesting one: resin on the leaves of plants in the Cistus species is collected using a leather rake or, historically, by “combing the beards of goats that grazed on the plants,” according to an Israeli botanist.

And though Hudsonia makes less ‘scents’ than those relatives, it’s high time to admire this low living buttery beauty. Degas notwithstanding.

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.