That heartbeat that thrums throughout the South Carolina Lowcountry – does it come from the daily steady ebb and flow of ocean tides soaking into the spongy salt marshes or from the welcoming warmth of the Southerners who live here?
You know, those folks with their ready smiles and an offer of sweet tea and a plate of warm homemade biscuits?
Whatever keeps that heart beating, the Beaufort County Lowcountry’s treasured salt marshes sing with life and promise, just like its people, and that’s what makes it home.
When I came to Beaufort I had struck upon a land so beautiful I had to hunt for other words that ached with the joyous, carnal charms of the green marshes that seemed to be the source of all life. Pat Conroy
And like the people who have lived here for generations, the salt marshes are rich with history and complex interconnections.
The marshes were formed about 12,000 years ago when sea levels rose and tidal creeks formed inland.
Early coastal dwelling Native Americans relied heavily on the oyster beds for both food and shells, which they used as tools.
In the 1600s the Gullah people, relocated from their homes in Africa, began to call the salt marshes home and with a wise understanding of the ecosystem, replenished the harvested oyster beds with shells to ensure there would be future oysters. Oyster babies, called “spats” attach themselves to a shell and begin to grow into an oyster.
The mid-1800s brought rice crops to the area, and rice farmers altered thousands of acres of marshlands with dikes and trunks to help control the ebb and flow of freshwater systems in their rice fields. Today these wetlands provide homes to migrating birds.
South Carolina has more salt marsh than any other state on the east coast – over a half million acres and Beaufort county lays claim to more of it than any other county in the state.
A first-time visitor to this winding shoreline will notice that tall yellow and green grasses dominate the landscape. Spartina alterniflora, or Spartina as it’s commonly known, is one of the only plants that grow in salt water. Spartina has evolved the ability to withstand regular inundation by saltwater and dominates the low marsh to the exclusion of almost all other plants, creating a very unusual habitat.
Spartina has thick, very tough stalks, well anchored by a root system. The plant’s narrow, tough blades and special glands that secrete excess salt, making it ideal to withstand sunshine and daily exposure to salt water. This rich and protected environment attracts egg-laying shrimp and blue crabs, as well as shallow feeding red drum fish foraging for shellfish larvae and marine worms.
Birds love the saltmarsh!
The water is teeming with a smorgasbord of food. Ospreys and terns dive for fish in the shallow water, while the wading birds – egrets, herons, and ibises stand silently and patiently watching for fiddler crabs and other tasty snacks.
Only a few species of birds build their nests in the marsh, and they use the thatch formed by Spartina. Marsh sparrows and marsh wrens are common nesters as are the shy clapper rails, which, though seldom seen under their well-constructed nest canopies, can often be heard. Their distinctive call of kek-kek-kek is a familiar sound throughout the marsh.
Osprey would impale the mullets from golf course lagoons, and cobia would lace their way through salt rivers in their own madness to spawn as blue herons hunted in perfect stillness, as hundreds of thousands of horseshoe crabs gathered to mate in the shallows along Land’s End. Pat Conroy
There are also some mammals and reptiles in the salt marsh.
Otters, minks, and racoons feast on shellfish, crabs, and small fishes among the dense grasses. Pods of bottlenose dolphins frequent the marshes as they hunt for a meal of fish and crustaceans.
The diamondback terrapins forage and lay their eggs here and occasionally, alligators hunt in the brackish, less salty areas of the marsh.
Threats to the saltmarsh:
As with all delicately balanced ecosystems, conservation efforts are imperative.
Now that the complexity and interconnectedness of the marshes are understood so is the value that the marsh brings to South Carolina’s coastal economy.
Federal and State laws govern the preservation of the salt marshes and include studying, monitoring, and minimizing the impact of potentially disruptive elements.
Coastal land development and the construction of canals and other water-flow modifications are considered, along with various forms of pollution.
Residents of South Carolina’s coastal regions are invested in preserving the salt marshes for many reasons. The first is love.
Whether from behind a lens, a paintbrush, or a pen, artists have, for centuries, been captivated by the beauty and mystery of the Lowcountry salt marshes. One of the best-known Beaufort County writers, the late Pat Conroy, brought the Lowcountry to life in his many novels. Some of his descriptions are breathtaking to a reader who has never seen the salt marsh, but a Lowcountry Southerner will read, nod, and smile in acknowledgment at phrases like this:
“At sunset we watch the saltwater tides rising with perfect congruence to the rising moon. No matter the time of day, the creek spreads out in the thrown coinage of sunset, bright as a centerpiece in the transcendental green of the great salt marsh.” Pat Conroy
Spring is coming!
Winter is almost over, and it’s a good time to get outside and see the fresh new green grasses leap up from the muddy flats of the salt marsh. Don’t miss it.
And if you’re not yet lucky enough to live in Beaufort County, it’s undoubtedly time for a Discovery Visit to Celadon, Beaufort’s premier address.
The beautiful Lowcountry salt marsh trails are a carefully preserved part of our neo-traditional community of Lowcountry homes.
Contact us today to arrange your Discovery Visit.
Further reading about the salt marsh:
Guide to the Salt Marshes and Tidal Creeks – SC Dept. of Natural Resources