Have you ever been to a beach in the summer that is completely lined with towels? Everywhere you look, there is another such towel, or related object? Furthermore, sometimes after a storm, there appears what seems to be an abundance of tattered strips of terry cloth, with others all faded. This is depending, of course, on the species.
Species? Yes, species, for these towels that line many of California’s beaches are not made of cotton or other cloth, but are common seaweeds of the genus Gigartina.
There are about a dozen species of these typically towel-like plants along the shores of the state. They are classified as red algae, but often their pigment is so rich that they appear to be more purple, even black, than red. The majority of the species have little bumpy growths or texturing covering their flat leaf-like blades, making them look very much like soft, fuzzy terry cloth towels.
One of the larger of these looks so much like a towel that has even been dubbed “Turkish Towel.” Its flat blade grows to about three feet in length, or about the size of a hand towel. (In the waters off of Tasmania, G. gigantea can grow to five feet in length and over two feet wide—a veritable bath towel for size!)
California’s living Turkish Towel is found from British Columbia to Baja California, in moderate depths along rocky shores. Yet even though when living, it is more in the realm of divers, it is probably better known among beachcombers who often come across it after it has been dislodged from its holdfast. In the southern part of its range, its blade is fairly smooth-edged, but further north, it tends to have a fringed border. It is a common species of Gigartina and really quite easy to identify, despite its specific name, exasperata.
In actuality, other species of Gigartina can prove to be more difficult to identify, but no need to ‘throw in the towel’ in exasperation when trying to figure out these either. Many are fairly straightforward. For example, G. spinosa is a common plant of the intertidal zone, usually having numerous blades which split into several sections. When it washes ashore, it tends to bleach out, becoming almost white, looking like old tattered bits of towel.
G. leptorhynchos has narrow blades from the start which grow to about a foot in length, with bristly growths. It thus has the appearance of strips of terry cloth on the beach. The large round single blade of G. corymbifera makes it fairly easy to recognize.
G. canaliculata lacks much in way of a towel look. In many ways, however, it can be better compared to a beach blanket. It is so abundant that it is considered to be the most common rock covering seaweed of the middle and low intertidal, wave battered areas.
The Turkish Towel seaweed and its cousins often become favorites among beachgoers because of their interesting bumpy surfaced blades. Moreover, they are among a prestigious bunch of algae which are highly prized for their useful products. The closely related Irish Moss (Chondris crispis) of the North Atlantic has long been used for food, as well as an antidote for scurvy and goiter. It and members of the genus Gigartina have recently become a major source of carrageenin—an important emulsifier used in all sorts of products, from foods such as pudding, candies, and cottage cheese to pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and industrial products including printers ink and paper. Efforts at farming Turkish Towel and related species have been made in order to take advantage of these seaweeds’ great commercial potentials.
And even without any processing, the Turkish Towel seaweed has been advocated by those into natural health and beauty products for use of what it so greatly resembles—a wash cloth for bathing! How creative.