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Restoring Sweetgrass to the South Carolina Lowcountry


Coiled baskets made from sweetgrass have been an important source of income for the Gullah community around Charleston, South Carolina for over a century. Descendants of West Africans brought in as slaves, Gullah artisans now find a comfortable livelihood threatened by dwindling supplies of the native grass they have long used to make baskets.

In 2002, the USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) and the College of Charleston, with funding from the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium, set up a study designed to involve basket makers in finding solutions for the scarcity of the native coastal plant. The findings are covered in a recent article in the journal Economic Botany.

Marianne Burke (research ecologist with the SRS unit in Charleston), Angela Halfacre (associate professor of political science, College of Charleston), and Zachary Hart (at the time of the study a student at the College of Charleston, now working for the Trust for Public Land) interviewed 23 Gullah basket makers between June 2002 and January 2003. Tapes of the interviews were transcribed and then analyzed to identify common views and practices to inform a long-term management plan for sweetgrass. “This is an environmental issue that directly affects local Gullah people and could impact one of the oldest traditional art forms practiced in the lowcountry,” says Burke. “The situation offers a great opportunity to learn more about involving the public in making decisions about managing natural resources.”

Lowcountry sweetgrass baskets have been made by the Gullah people for almost three centuries. Documented as early as 1730, the distinct form of basketry was first practiced almost exclusively by men. Women took over the craft in the1920s, when many of the men left the area to serve in the military or look for jobs. Though new forms have evolved in the work of individual artists, the basic designs have remained the same throughout time. The coiled seagrass baskets, now highly prized as works of art, represent a major source of income for the community.

Sweetgrass (Muhlenbergia filipes), a long-bladed grass restricted to the coast of the southeastern United States, grows in clumps along the second dune line of the beach, in the boundaries between marshes and woods, and in wet savannahs. This “muhly” grass is not to be confused with the true sweet grass (Hierochloe odorata) used by Native American basket makers. Although three other plants - palm, longleaf pine, and black rush - are also used in South Carolina lowcountry baskets, the primary material is Muhlenbergia filipes. Needed in the greatest quantity, sweetgrass has become the most difficult material to obtain, with basket makers now paying gatherers who travel as far as Florida.

“Fire suppression may have played a part in the decline of sweetgrass habitat, but residential development is the major cause,” says Burke. “The coastal savannah habitat has disappeared from much of this land, and areas where sweetgrass still grows cannot be accessed because of private property restrictions. There is a real possibility that this culturally and economically significant art form may disappear if basket makers cannot find a reliable and affordable source.”

The researchers interviewed basket makers at home or at the roadside stands where they sell their wares, asking open-ended questions designed to identify common views about sweetgrass use and management. All the survey responders were women; the eldest respondent was 78 and the youngest 41, with a mean age of 44.

“We identified seven views and practices common to all of the basket makers,” says Halfacre. “Most had purchased sweetgrass from collectors, and they all identified residential development as the reason the grass has become unavailable.” The high price basket makers pay the gatherers not only raises the prices of baskets; it also affects the legacy of the craft. Basket makers can no longer afford to give their children sweetgrass to play with when they first express interest in making baskets.

“The key findings from the survey are that the basket makers support several different management alternatives,” says Halfacre, “and that they are willing to contribute to management efforts.” One proposed alternative is to set aside land dedicated specifically to growing sweetgrass. The ownership of the land was not as important to the basket makers as access: solutions ranged from a “farm” to home cultivation. Respondents expressed a need for education about cultivating and maintaining sweetgrass populations to help those who would like to grow it in their own yards.

“An idea that could improve supplies that has not been addressed is working with the residents of nearby islands - where the grass grows abundantly but is off-limits - to enable access,” says Burke. “The willingness of the basket makers to open these lines of communication and to learn to manage the sweetgrass themselves opens up more possibilities for managing this resource in the future."

For more information: Marianne Burke at (843-769-7010) or

Marianne Burke | EurekAlert!
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