Spartina Grass

Photo by Marge Agin

“To describe our growing up in the low country of South Carolina, I would have to take you to the marsh on a spring day, flush the great blue heron from its silent occupation, scatter marsh hens as we sink to our knees in mud, open you an oyster with a pocketknife and feed it to you from the shell and say, “There. Taste that.  That’s the taste of my childhood.”  Pat Conroy

In my own backyard on Lady’s Island, I could catch a basket of blue crabs and a net full of shrimp just in time for lunch.  I love that all life begins in the marsh.  What could be better than a pot of Frogmore stew simmering by a saltwater creek with the aroma of pork sausage, mingling with freshly dug potatoes, ears of corn, blue crab and shrimp.

If you spend much time on the water in the Lowcountry, it’s easy to be transformed by the beauty of majestic salt marshes, muddy tidal flats, winding creeks, inviting barrier islands, and deep blue rivers. It all tempts us to immerse ourselves into this land and embrace it. Stand on the edge of a marsh and watch the sway of spartina grass in the wind. Lose yourself in the heart of the Lowcountry and the vibrant waterways that shape our ecosystem.

Did you know Spartina is the only plant that can grow while fully submerged in saltwater? It is native to our South Carolina Lowcountry and is also found all along the Atlantic coast from Canada to Argentina. We see it along our coastline or in tidal flats, defining the twists and turns of our creeks and rivers. It provides a thick barrier between the ocean and marsh edge while also acting as a natural filter to dilute the salty water from the ocean that is brought into estuaries. And it’s a food source for many other species, such as manatees.

Often this grass washes up onto beaches and makes its way into sand dunes helping support the dune foundation and providing vegetation for numerous beach animal life, including migrating shorebirds.

It plays a crucial role in the protection it provides for the shoreline, preventing the tides from eroding the bank. A salt marsh is “born” by the arrival of a seed or the rafting of cord grass. The grass spreads by means of a subterranean rhizome system. 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 against water and wind.

It’s a thriving perennial and plays this important role while alive, and it continues its importance in the ecosystem after it dies, as well. You’ll see it in large clumps in the creeks and rivers of the Lowcountry mainly in the fall and winter months as the seasons change. Thick clumps of dead marsh grass float down the rivers and along muddy flats. Just be careful not to catch them in your boat’s propeller. 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 to eat such as clams, oysters, mussels, snails, shrimp and crabs.

Explore it for yourself and watch as the tide recedes and fiddler crabs appear. Notice how the spartina grass gives support to their homes as they burrow and make their homes at its base. It’s not unusual to find a group of mussels or oysters clumped together at the foundations of the grass providing them a safe place to live. Watch the tides by the water’s edge, the ripples in the river, feel the warm breezes, and notice the great salt marsh changing with autumn’s chill from green to golden brown.

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