Muhly Grass Sews Nature Together

What is that pink plant growing in the dunes? In October and November, I hear that question a lot at the Jekyll Island Guest Information Center. Muhly grass is a unique plant here on the Georgia and South Carolina coasts. It grows in the back dunes. For most of the year, people tend to ignore the soft grass right behind the beach. Well, they do until it blooms, and then its beautiful pink seeds catch our attention.

This Muhly grass, or Muhlenbergia sericea, has an intriguing nature connection. In the early 1800s along our coast, we had large rice plantations. The people who worked these fields were enslaved people brought from the rice fields of West Africa. These people brought their culture of basket sewing with them. They made their fanner baskets to help separate the rice from the chaff. They also made other types of baskets for all kinds household chores.

Basketmaking is a tedious business. Gathering just the right kind of grass, wrapping it in strips of palmetto leaves, then weaving and sewing these ropes into different shaped baskets takes patience and skill. It is an art form mastered by these West African people.

After the Civil War, these freed people had a craft which gave them an income. For years, they lived by making these unique baskets that could be sold for hundreds of dollars.

But as the years passed, more people discovered the coast. They began building in the areas where Muhly grass grows. Areas which were once wide open now were closed behind gates from the basketmakers.

In 1988, a group gathered to discuss the problem facing the sweetgrass basketmakers. Some horticulturists joined the meeting. These farmers felt sure they could grow the grass on farmland or in backyard plots. The grass thrived under the farmers’ eyes. Then, it was time to harvest the grass. The excited basketmakers came to try this grass out; but it turned out that although the grass looked good, it was brittle and not suitable for basketmaking. Wild Muhly grass left to grow in the arid dune field were easily bent into the shapes for baskets, but the cultivated grass was just too brittle to use.

The Muhly grass needed the dunes, and the basketmakers needed the grass. So, they made agreements with gated communities to come in and harvest the sweet grass. Little St. Simons Island played a part in bringing the Muhly grass back. They invited the basketmakers onto the island to get the grass they need.

Since the 1990s, Muhly grass is coming back to the Georgia coast. Jekyll Island’s Cliff Gawron plants it all over the barrier island. There is a beautiful field of Muhly grass growing behind the primary dunes on St. Simons Island, too.

Now back to the first question I asked. What is that pink grass on the island? It is Muhly grass. It saved a culture, and the culture saved it. Now that is sewing together nature and people of the coast — and is a great Nature Connection.

To learn more about Muhly grass, read the book “Stalking the Wild Sweetgrass,” by Robert J Dufault.