Conservation // 3 min Read

A Sea of Grass

Written by Palmetto Bluff

Sep 12, 2019

The autumn sun is beginning to set over the salt marsh, casting a golden glow on the sea of grass before me. I’m standing at the edge of Theus Point, listening to the sounds of the marsh settling down for the night. Marsh hens finish their cackling and prepare to retire for the evening. The bubbly pop of oyster shells expelling water on the falling tide punctuates the quiet. I watch a northern harrier (endearingly named “marsh hawk”) glide over the vegetation while looking for an evening meal. The sulfurous smell of pluff mud permeates the air. I breathe the aroma in deeply and am reminded of the childhood I spent living alongside a saltwater marsh in Charleston.

The salt marsh is an integral part of life in the Lowcountry. Fingers of its serpentine channels reach into our culture and flood our history. It is the basis of much of our economy, from the fishery and shellfish industries to tourism. Our coastal marshes provide a buffer from hurricanes and absorb much of the storm surges associated with them. It is amazing to consider that the foundation on which this ecosystem and our culture rests is a single species of grass, spartina alterniflora, or smooth cordgrass.

Spartina has deep roots that anchor it into pluff mud, which, ironically, is composed of decayed spartina along with other organic matter. The constant process of decay in this plethoric detritus is what causes the sulfuric rotten egg smell that is either loved or hated by coastal inhabitants; there is rarely an ambivalence on this odorous emission. These prolific roots mean spartina can withstand twice daily tidal changes without being washed away. Their presence decelerates the fl ow of water, causing sediment to precipitate and accumulate over time, providing habitat for mussels and oysters.

Spartina is the only plant along our coast tolerant of extreme conditions resulting from repeated inundations of saltwater. The constant change in water level causes multiple tremendous temperature fluctuations within a single day. Spartina is halophytic, meaning it is a plant adapted to environments rich in salt. The epidermal tissue of its leaves has special glands that excrete salt and allow this grass to withstand constant exposure to saltwater. As a child, I used to run my fingers along the stalks so I could taste the marshy salt. These adaptations mean spartina is extremely adept at dominating this habitat at the almost complete exclusion of other plants, making our marshes a grassland in the water.

The fall has always been my favorite time of year in the salt marsh. Flowering grass stalks produce seeds smaller than a grain of rice and then, spent and with a fulfilled purpose, begin to die off in preparation for winter. The dying leaf blades begin to change color in the late fall, becoming beautifully golden before settling on light brown. Some of these dead stalks break off and float as wrack in the tide, beginning their process of decay with the assistance of bacteria and algae. Come spring, new growth will push up and detach the remaining dead stalks, and these too will turn into wrack and eventually decompose. The annual cycle of growth and death makes the salt marsh one of the most energetically productive ecosystems in the world—second only to tropical rain forests.

Decaying spartina is an important food source for many detritivores that eat rotting organic material, such as grass shrimp and fiddler crabs. As dead spartina grass gets broken down into smaller and smaller particles, it is filtered from the water by several bivalves and crustaceans, including oysters, mussels, and barnacles. Fiddler crabs help mix particles that sink below the mud by bringing balls of sludge to the surface while excavating their burrows. The nutrient influx from spartina is what makes our water so murky—and so productive.

The abundance of nutrients combined with shelter from predators makes the salt marsh a crucial nursery. Over 75 percent of species in our commercial fishery use its protection at some point during their life cycle, including shrimp, blue crabs, oysters, and red drum. Some species complete their entire life cycle within the confines of the salt marsh, while others are transient, beginning their ontogeny in the ocean then moving into inland creeks to spawn, breed, or grow. Our humble salt marsh is the beginning of the circle of life for our oceans.

While I have been pondering this, the sun has completed its journey to the bottom of the sky, and I begin to head back to my truck. I hope to see an otter slinking through the marsh in search of crustaceans or an owl hunting for rodents scurrying within the grass. As I drive away, I study the moonlight gleaming off the unassuming stalks of the foundation of it all: the spartina grass.


Conservation / Palmetto Bluff Conservancy 2024 Summer Camps

The Conservancy is looking forward to another summer of fun with our upcoming kid's programs!  Wild Child Camp and Junior Naturalist Camp will have dedicated weeks in June. Registration is $200 per child for the week. To participate, parents must fill out t...

Apr 2024

Culture / Palmetto Bluff Growing Outdoors

Photographs by Summer Pagatpatan Palmetto Bluff is a wilderness playground for families, a gateway to the outdoors, to living life close to nature. Palmetto Bluff Growing Outdoors, or PBGO, encompasses the ethos of this extraordinary place. CampGO is PBGO’...

Apr 2024

Sporting Life / A Comparison of the May River & Crossroads Golf Courses

Discover the May River and Crossroads Golf Courses at Palmetto Bluff Positioned within the enchanting Lowcountry landscape, Palmetto Bluff boasts an array of world-class amenities, with its golf courses standing as a testament to the community's commitment to...

Apr 2024
palmetto bluff

Culture / Behind the Bluff with Fitness and Wellness Director: Jeff Ford

Jeff’s Journey to the Palmetto Bluff Fitness and Wellness Team Palmetto Bluff is located amidst the serene landscapes of the Lowcountry, a tranquil haven where wellness intertwines seamlessly with nature's splendor. Jeff Ford, the Palmetto Bluff Club's Direct...

Apr 2024

Real Estate / Make the Move to the Lowcountry

5 Benefits of Living in South Carolina Known for its charming small towns, pristine coastline, and natural beauty, the South Carolina Lowcountry is one of the most popular places to live. The Lowcountry is a unique and desirable place to live, offering an arr...

Apr 2024

Sporting Life / Crossroads | A Shotmaker’s Playground

Photographs by Patrick O’Brien Words by Rob Collins Designer Rob Collins of King-Collins offers a first look at Crossroads, Palmetto Bluff’s new nine-hole reversible golf course. It is a feat of design. One routing, The Hammer, is a whirlwind of angles and u...

Apr 2024

Architecture & Design / Resurrecting Stones

Story by Katie Epps Photographs by Joel Caldwell Beneath Palmetto Bluff’s sprawling oaks lie twelve cemeteries that serve as the final resting places for hundreds of people and nine dogs. Five of these cemeteries were started as burial grounds for enslaved...

Mar 2024

Real Estate / Discover The Grove: A Premier Enclave for Nature-Inspired Living

Putting Down Strong Roots The Grove seamlessly combines curated style with courtyard living, welcoming the lush beauty of the Lowcountry at every doorstep. With twelve homesites meticulously designed to maximize outdoor living, Palmetto Bluff Builders offer...

Mar 2024

Culture / Meet Palmetto Bluff Club Members Shayne and Jason Hollander

How did you meet? Shayne: Jason and I both attended the University of Southern California. We met through our mutual friend Mike, a USC connection. I was always very captivated by Jason, his wit and charm.  Jason: Shayne’s first job in college was working ...

Mar 2024
palmetto bluff activities

Sporting Life / Sticking to Your New Year Resolutions: How to Stay Active at The Bluff

Create Lasting Habits With These 6 Palmetto Bluff Activities As the new year sets in, many of us find ourselves determined to stick to those resolutions we set just a few weeks ago. Whether it's getting fit, staying active, or embracing a healthier lifestyle,...

Mar 2024
Community Villages
Palmetto Bluff Club
On The Water
The Arts Initiative
About Us