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Citadel News Service
6 Jul 2006

South Carolina sweetgrass basketmakers depend on the harder-to-find plants, researcher hopes to help grow more

Citadel biology professor Danny Gustafson knows a lot about sweetgrass for a guy who's lived in the Lowcountry for only three years.


Photo courtesy of Wade Spees/The Post and Courier.

Citadel professor Danny Gustafson walks back to his boat after visiting a plot on Apron Island owned by the school near Folly Beach. The biologist has planted clumps of sweetgrass in a test plot and is doing genetic research hoping to increase the dwindling supply.
See PDF version of story that appeared in the July 6 edition of The Post and Courier. Click here.

Gustafson, a plant molecular ecologist, said he hopes his work ultimately will help replace some of the wild sweetgrass lost to development.

He's doing research that involves genetically testing and monitoring sweetgrass plants to learn which ones grow best along the South Carolina coast. And he's doing much of his work on Apron Island, an 18-acre island surrounded by marsh that The Citadel owns near Folly Beach.

Native sweetgrass basketmaker Maryann Jefferson said the artists often have to travel to Georgia and Florida to gather the grass because there's less growing in this area. And much of what is available here grows inside gated communities, beyond the basketmakers' reach, she said.

It's rewarding to do scientific research that may also be good for people and the environment, Gustafson said.

"I can do my nerdy plant stuff and still help people," he said. "How can you lose?"
Gustafson's research has two parts. In the first part, which he has completed, he genetically tested three types of grasses that people in different parts of the country call sweetgrass.

He confirmed through genetic tests that the plants that grow along the east coast of the United States from North Carolina to central Florida and along the Gulf Coast from central Texas to central Florida are a separate species that since 2003 has been called muhlenbergia sericea. It was formerly called muhlenbergia filipes.

Knowing that the plants that commonly grow along the Southeastern shores are a separate species is important, Gustafson said, because people can use that knowledge to avoid planting nonnative plants that could be harmful to the environment.

But it's a long way from South Carolina to Texas, and plants, like people, vary widely even within the same species.

That led Gustafson to the second part of his research.

He wanted to know if the plants from Texas fared as well in the South Carolina Lowcountry as those that are native to the area. And so far, the Texas plants are failing miserably.

Gustafson planted more than 100 plants, some from Texas and some from South Carolina, in a greenhouse, where they grew for eight months. All the Texas plants flowered in the greenhouse "on their Texas schedule" before October when the South Carolina plants typically flower, he said.

In late October, Gustafson transplanted about 100 plants to a small clearing on Apron Island. About 46 percent of the Texas plants died over the winter, compared to just 5 percent of the South Carolina plants.

About 70 plants remain on the island. Gustafson said he'll observe them for at least another year.

Then, he said, he'd like to find some places in the area accessible to basketmakers where he could plant local sweetgrass.

"You can't believe how helpful that would be," Jefferson said. A few such places exist, but not many.

Gustafson said in the future he'd also like to compare plants from South Carolina with those that grow in Georgia and Florida.

Now, a lot of landscapers in newer housing developments order grasses and other plants from those states, he said.

But sometimes mixing native and nonnative plants can "break down the genetic combinations that make them adapt to the local environment," he said.

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