Conservation // 6 min Read

A Native Learns the Lowcountry

Written by Palmetto Bluff

Feb 15, 2016

If you’ve ever spent any amount of time on the water in the Lowcountry, you’ve probably also caught yourself nearly tranquilized by the beauty of the majestic salt marshes, muddy tidal flats, inviting barrier islands, miles of sandy beaches, winding creeks, enticing riverways and much more. With the tides and warm breezes, this area has a unique way of persuading and tempting its residents and visitors to immerse themselves into this land – to know it and to love it.

Just as it is customary to cozy up by a fire and stare deeply into the roaring inferno and glowing embers, it is equally as tantalizing to stop in your tracks on the marsh edge and appreciate the ripples of our rivers and the sway of the marsh grass in the wind. You can get lost in the heart of the Lowcountry, the powerful and unforgiving, yet vibrant and dynamic waterways that shape this ecosystem.


After having agreed to write this article on the highly active and intriguing Lowcountry ecosystem, I thought, ‘1,500 words – what a cinch!’ After all, I am a native to this area, and I did grow up on the relaxed barrier island of Wilmington Island (in my mind, I grew up on the water, so to speak). I thought surely I knew enough about this habitat after being immersed in it my entire life.

But then the research began, and I quickly realized how complex and significant each flowing river was to this area and how each piece of marsh grass and organism living in these waters and estuaries is equally important – and how little I actually knew about this magnificent ecosystem.

So, I made my first call, blindly, to the Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head Island, initially to ask about our resident bottlenose dolphin. While I was growing up, my little brother worked with local dolphin tour companies, so I knew there was a species of dolphin that called our waters home year-round. However, after my first five minutes on the phone with Carlos Chacon, Biologist and Naturalist and Manager of Natural History for the Museum, it was very clear to me how truly remarkable this habitat is, and how my original intention to write about the cute and playful dolphin was actually a much bigger – and more powerful – story.

Carlos told me about everything from oysters, crabs, shrimp, manatees, sea turtles, alligators and plankton (and yes, of course, dolphin) that inhabit this area, to the impressive tidal range of the South Carolina Lowcountry, and he even managed to give me background on migrating shorebirds, breeding season, hatching season and the native spartina grass. Whew!

His passion and knowledge for the land and water and everything that calls it home was humbling. So, after that hour-long conversation with Carlos, I felt armed with information, inspiration and curiosity, and I was so much more passionate about the brackish waters of our marshes and creeks that I knew I had to (attempt to) tell this story.


Second only to Maine, which averages a 10-foot tidal range, the South Carolina Lowcountry has the second-largest tidal range on the East Coast, averaging around a six-foot difference between high tide and low tide.

Tidal range is associated with tidal amplitude and refers to the average daily difference between high tide and low tide. The amplitude is also directly correlated to the position of the moon.

What does the moon have to do with the tide?

The moon rotates around the earth every 24 hours and 50 minutes (also known as a tidal day), which is why high tide is around 50 minutes to an hour later day by day. During the highest tides, the gravitational pull from the moon is the strongest because it is actually pulling at the earth’s surface under the ocean and creating a concave mound on the ocean floor. Because this mound has formed, the water must be dispersed and eventually it makes its way to the coastline where we then have a picturesque high tide to enjoy.

What does the tide do for our ecosystem?

Incoming daily with the tides are thousands of organisms that reach our estuaries and marshes and provide nourishment for the plants and animals that live in this environment. Many organisms, as well as crab, fish and shrimp, spend the majority of their early lives in the marsh by the coast where the saltwater is diluted. They then build a salt tolerance and prepare for life in the open sea.

On the other hand, the outgoing tides carry large amounts of nutrient-rich food with them made up of decomposed plant vegetation, adult organisms, shrimp, crab, smooth cord grass (spartina) and more.


Native to the South Carolina Lowcountry and also found all along the Atlantic coast from Canada to Argentina, the essential Spartina alterniflora (or smooth cord-grass) is the only plant that can grow successfully while fully submerged in saltwater. It can be found along the coastline or in tidal flats, defining the twists and turns of our favorite creeks and rivers. It provides a thick barrier between the open ocean and delicate marsh edge while also acting as a natural filter to dilute the salty water from the ocean that is brought into the estuaries for animals. It also provides a food source for many other species, such as manatees and grasshoppers.

This grass is also washed up onto beaches by the tides, making its way into the sand dunes to help support the dune foundation and provide vegetation for numerous beach animal life, including migrating shorebirds.

Another crucial role of this perennial grass is the protection it provides for the shoreline, preventing the tides from eroding the bank. Its thick base and complex root system under the marsh floor allow it to extend anywhere from three to seven feet vertically, providing a strong barrier from both water and wind.

This thriving plant provides an important role while alive, and it continues its importance in the ecosystem after it dies, as well. Large clumps of dead spartina grass are characteristic of these waters and seen in the creeks and rivers of the Lowcountry heavily in the fall and winter months as the seasons change. When you’re kayaking and a thick clump of dead marsh grass comes along that you have to use your paddle to push out of the way – yeah, it’s that stuff.

These clumps of cord-grass are known as wracks and, when broken down by bacteria, organisms and fish, they become small enough pieces for other animals, such as clams, oysters, mussels, snails, crabs and others, to eat.

The perfect real estate?

Well, it depends on who you ask. For many small animals in the Lowcountry waters, the answer is ‘yes.’ Spartina cord-grass gives structural support to fiddler crab homes as they burrow their homes at its base. It’s also not surprising to find a group of mussels or oysters clumped together at the foundation of this grass as, again, it provides a sufficient and safe place to live. Many small fish and other marine life also take shelter in the grass while hiding from predators.

But there is no doubt that the South Carolina Lowcountry is rooted by its rich ecosystem and easily inhabitable environment, while also demanding respect by both the marine life that reside in it and the human life that reside adjacent to it. There is so much more to learn about the fascinating ecology of the Lowcountry. For more information, visit or come to the Bluff and explore it yourself.

Photography by Greg Smith

palmetto bluff

Real Estate / Behind the Bluff with Broker-in-Charge W. Bryan Byrne

Bryan’s Journey to Palmetto Bluff Real Estate In this edition of Behind the Bluff, W. Bryan Byrne, the Broker-in-Charge at Palmetto Bluff Real Estate Company, discusses his two-decade journey in the community. His experience has intricately molded the authent...

Jan 2024
real estate in bluffton sc

Real Estate / Lowcountry Housing Trends & Market Updates

Real Estate in Bluffton, SC: Trends, Updates, and Insights Bluffton, South Carolina, nestled within the scenic Lowcountry, is not just a picturesque haven but also a thriving real estate market. As the demand for homes in this charming town continues to grow,...

Jan 2024

Food & Wine / Mocktails from the Palmetto Bluff Club

Rosemary Spice Mocktail Recipe Introducing Buffalos' exquisite Rosemary Spice Mocktail—a meticulously crafted blend that awakens the taste buds with a perfect harmony of bold flavors. Fresh jalapenos are muddled for a subtle spicy kick, while luscious cra...

Jan 2024

Artist in Residence / Painting Wild

Story by Sandy Lang and Photographs by Lawson Builder In early May, The Arts Initiative hosted renowned Lowcountry painter West Fraser as our esteemed Artist In Residence. Throughout his stay, residents were treated to an array of events, including a painting...

Jan 2024
palmetto buff golf course

Sporting Life / Behind the Bluff with the Palmetto Bluff 9-Hole Golf Course Team

All About the New Palmetto Bluff Golf Course Nestled in the picturesque landscape of Palmetto Bluff, a new golfing adventure is taking shape—the Crossroads 9-Hole Golf Course. To delve into the intricacies of this project, we had the opportunity to sit down w...

Dec 2023

Conservation / Palmetto Bluff Buffalo Run 2023: A Celebration of Endurance, Nature, and Community

A Recap of the 2034 Buffalo Run The Palmetto Bluff Buffalo Run celebrated its 10th anniversary on Sunday, December 11, 2023, drawing in a record-breaking crowd of over 500 runners. The event, nestled in the heart of Palmetto Bluff's 20,000 acres of natural sp...

Dec 2023
places to eat near hilton head

Food & Wine / Ask the Locals: Our Favorite Restaurants Near Hilton Head

The 10 Best Places to Eat Near Hilton Head Island Nestled on the southernmost tip of South Carolina, Hilton Head Island beckons not only with its pristine beaches but also with a culinary scene that rivals its natural beauty. The Lowcountry, known for breatht...

Dec 2023

Artist in Residence / Journey through Creativity: Palmetto Bluff's 2023 Artist in Residence Highlights

As the sun sets over the picturesque landscape of Palmetto Bluff, we are grateful for the creativity that took center stage throughout the year. The 2023 Artist in Residence program has ended, leaving behind a trail of artistic marvels and inspiring stories. F...

Dec 2023

Real Estate / The Builders Behind the Bluff

Meet the Palmetto Bluff Builders Team A home is more than just bricks and mortar; it's where cherished memories are made, and dreams come to life. At Palmetto Bluff, the Palmetto Bluff Builders team designs homes based on your vision.  Allow us to introduc...

Dec 2023

Well Living at Montage Palmetto Bluff

Story by Meghan Lamb A life well lived is a life full of connection and rich experiences. It is about embracing the present moment, exploring new horizons, and nurturing the mind, body, and spirit. One such lifestyle can be found at Montage Palmetto Bluff, a ...

Dec 2023
Community Villages
Palmetto Bluff Club
On The Water
The Arts Initiative
About Us