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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 African 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 the 1920s, 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 p
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Contact: Marianne Burke
mburke@fs.fed.us
843-769-7010
Southern Research Station - USDA Forest Service
19-Aug-2004


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