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Hordeum marinum (sea barley)

Sea barley is a wild relative of the well-known cereal barley (Hordeum vulgare).
Hordeum marinum (sea barley)

Hordeum marinum in Lagos, Portugal (Photo: Júlio Reis licensed under CC by 3.0)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Hordeum marinum Huds.

Common name: 

sea barley, seaside barley

Conservation status: 

Vulnerable (VU) in Great Britain according to IUCN Red List criteria.


Bare soil on coastlines, margins of dried-up saline pools, disturbed verges inland of sea walls and salt marshes.

Key Uses: 

Potential for use in crop breeding.

Known hazards: 

Barley grasses can cause problems for sheep such as eye injuries, reduced weight gain and inferior wool quality.


Genus: Hordeum

About this species

A member of the grass family (Poaceae), Hordeum marinum is a salt-tolerant wild relative of the economically important cereal barley (H. vulgare).

Sea barley occurs on bare soil on the coast, around dried-up salty pools in salt marshes, and on rare occasions may be found on sandy or stony areas. Its tolerance of high salt levels and the water-logging that commonly accompanies it, makes sea barley a candidate for hybridisation with wheat (Triticum species). Increasing salinity of arable land is a costly problem for farmers worldwide, reducing plant growth and thus crop yields.


Discover more

Geography and distribution

The UK is at the northern edge of the distribution of Hordeum marinum, where it grows from the south coast of Wales to its northernmost limit at the Wash. It is absent from Ireland and no longer occurs in Scotland. It is also found across the Mediterranean and parts of Central Asia on disturbed inland areas. This species has become extensively naturalised outside its native range.


Hordeum marinum herbarium specimen
Herbarium specimen of Hordeum marinum

Sea barley grows up to 10–40 cm tall with stiff, smooth stems growing singly or clustered loosely together. Stems grow either straight upwards or outwards, spreading from a bent base. Each stem contains 3 or 4 nodes (areas from which leaves emerge). Sheaths (the lower parts of the leaf that wrap around the stem) are smooth and rounded on their backs. The leaf blade is bluish-green and narrows to a fine point at the tip. Membrane-like ligules (outgrowths on the inner side of the junction between leaf sheath and blade) are less than 1 mm in length.

Flower heads are green or purplish, spike-shaped and bristled, 2.0–6.0 cm long and 1.5–3.0 cm wide. Spikelets (single units of the flower head composed of modified leaves and flowers) occur in groups of three, alternating on opposite sides of the flowering stem. The central spikelet contains a single bisexual flower and joins directly to the flowering stem. Lateral spikelets are sterile and borne on short stalks. On fruiting, spikelets fall from the flowering stem in groups of three. Flowering and fruiting occurs during the summer

Subspecies of sea barley

There are two subspecies of sea barley. Hordeum marinum subspecies marinum is distinguished by the wide, wing-like base of the inner glumes (modified leaves at the base of spikelets) of its lateral spikelets. In contrast, H. marinum subspecies gussoneanum has a narrower inner glume that is not winged and a more variable chromosome number. Although H. marinum subspecies gussoneanum is not native to the British Isles, it is widely invasive in Britain and has been present in Guernsey for more than a hundred years. Seeds of H. marinum may colonise outside of their native range, carried as contaminants in imports of agricultural plants.

Reproduction of sea barley

Sea barley is an annual that self-pollinates and reproduces solely by seed. It requires an open habitat, performing best in mud that begins to dry during spring and is hard by the middle of the summer. Flooding in winter may help disperse the seeds, as winter flood lines from the previous year are found to contain seed deposits. Seedlings are seen in both spring and autumn; however, it is not known if either of these populations contributes more significantly to persistence of the species.

Threats and conservation

The distribution of sea barley around the south coast of England has become patchy as populations at the limits of its distribution disappear. These local extinctions are due to loss of appropriate habitat through filling-in of brackish land, land improvement, conversion of marshland grazing sites and construction of sea defences. These habitat losses have led to sea barley being listed as Vulnerable in the Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain 2005.

Another reason for its decline is that annuals such as Hordeum marinum are susceptible to competition from perennial species. Elymus pycnanthus, for example, may take over the saline habitats previously occupied by H. marinum, a problem that can be alleviated by the continuous creation of open areas, which are essential for the establishment and persistence of sea barley.


Sea barley is tolerant of high salt levels in the soil and also of the water-logging that commonly accompanies high salinity. These qualities have led to sea barley being proposed as a candidate for hybridisation with wheat (Triticum species), with the aim of producing plants that are more suited to the increasing salinity of arable land, which can result from climate change.

Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change

Kew is one of a number of institutions collaborating on the 'Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change' project. This project seeks to combat the threat to global food security posed by climate change and will focus on collecting, protecting and preparing crop wild relatives for breeding programmes.

Hordeum marinum is an important wild relative of the major cereal grain Hordeum vulgare (barley). Previous studies of H. marinum have found that its saline tolerance makes it a possible candidate for hybridisation with wheat (Triticum species). It is hoped that introducing traits from wild relatives to crop species will produce hybrids adapted to new climates with different demands.

Millennium Seed Bank: Saving seeds

The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

Two collections of Hordeum marinum seeds are held in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank based at Wakehurst in West Sussex.

See Kew’s Seed Information Database for further information on Hordeum marinum.

This species at Kew

Sea barley is not currently grown at Kew, but other Hordeum species can be seen growing here in the Grass Garden.

Pressed and dried specimens of Hordeum marinum are held in Kew’s Herbarium where they are available to researchers by appointment. The details of some of these specimens, including some images, can be seen online in Kew’s Herbarium Catalogue.

References and credits

Alton, S. (2004). The Millennium Seed Bank Project (MSBP) International Programme. BGjournal 1: 15-16.

Cheffings, C. & Farrell, L. (eds) (2005). The Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain. Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough.

Colmer, T. D., Flowers, T. J. & Munns, R. (2006). Use of wild relatives to improve salt tolerance in wheat. Journal of Experimental Botany 57: 1059-1078.

Cope, T. & Gray, A. (2009). Grasses of the British Isles. Botanical Society of the British Isles, London.

Hubbard, C. E. (1984). Grasses: a Guide to their Structure, Identification, Uses and Distribution in the British Isles. The Penguin Group, London.

Malik, A. I., English, J. P. & Coler T. D. (2009). Tolerance of Hordeum marinum accessions to O2 deficiency, salinity and these stresses combined. Annals of Botany 103: 237-248.

Speltzer (2009). Weed 2: Barley GrassAvailable online (accessed 5 Jan 2012).

Tropicos (2012). Hordeum marinum Huds. Available online (accessed 5 Jan 2012).

Kew Science Editors: Sally King and Maria Vorontsova
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

Although every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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