Naturalist Fact: Sweetgrass

Muhlenbergia filipes, also known as sweetgrass or muhley grass, is a native, perennial grass found growing sparsely in the coastal dunes extending from North Carolina to Texas.  Sweetgrass prefers full sun and sandy soil, usually growing in bands about 50 to 75 m from the mean high tide line in undulating sand dunes behind the first dunes along the ocean.  Also, plants are found growing on well-drained, sandy uplands bordering brackish marshes and in open maritime forests.  African Americans from the Gullah tradition of the Lowcountry have used this plant for centuries to make their renowned sweetgrass baskets.  The baskets are nearly identical to those made hundreds of years ago in the West African rice culture whose traditions have been passed on in families from generation to generation, and is a glimpse into living history.  Muhley grass provides important food and habitat for much of the island’s small mammal populations including mice, rats, and marsh rabbits.  It is also an important area for birds, reptiles, and other plant species.  Due to coastal development, much of this habitat has been lost and has been designated a N2 (or imperiled) status by NatureServe.  This plant which flowers from September through November, but peaks in October, produces a beautiful pinkish-purple haze throughout much of the islands’ open grasslands.  Little St. Simon’s Island has great examples of this plant community along Sancho Panza and to the North and South of Beach Road.

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