March 08, 2005

Pluff Mud Love

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I love pluff mud. I love the smell of pluff mud and look forward to smelling it around the lowcountry. What is pluff mud anyway? Well here is just a little about it.

South Carolina has an estimated 400,000 acres of coastal marshes and 100,000 acres of tidal swamps. Beaufort County (with 335.98 square miles of water area vs. 587.03 land area) and Charleston County (with 439.72 water vs. 917.42 land) have the greatest share of salt marshes in the state. Tidal rivers (the Santee, Stono, Ashley and Cooper) feed brackish marshes upstream, and there are many tidal fresh marshes and swamps along the drainage basins of coastal rivers (Combahee, Savannah, Edisto, Pee Dee, Waccamaw, Santee, Cooper and Ashepoo). Hunting Island State Park and Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge (near Savannah) preserved areas of coastal marshland, as are Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in Awendaw, Edisto Beach State Park, Huntington Island State Park in Murrells Inlet, and Charleston’s Folly Beach County Park.

Spartina grass species (cord grass, salt marsh cord grass, and marram) are by far the dominant plant life in salt water marshes (which are wetlands, like swamps; in swamps, trees and bushes are most common, however). There are just a few species of flora in the marsh. According to Peter Meyer, "marshes are some of the most productive land on earth. Using photosynthesis, marsh grasses convert vast amounts of solar energy into plant tissue; as the grasses die, large nutrient loads are released into adjacent estuarine waters." These organic nutrients (ten tons per year) go on to feed perhaps 95% of the fish, shrimp and shellfish harvested in our ocean sounds and high seas.

Marsh mud itself is made when rain and river water bring in topsoil that has run off from dry land. The silt follows the slower currents into steep banks of the tidal stream. With time, the ooze slows the channel flow. The marsh grasses then colonize the sediment fields (and are covered to some extent at high tide). Mr. Meyer wrote, "Marsh sediments are stabilized by spartina as much as sand dunes are stabilized by Sea Oats and Beach Grass. Spartina grows taller near the water’s edge, smaller near higher land." These grasses seldom produce any fruit.

The movement of the waves sometimes forms "beach balls" (spheres of marsh mud containing bits of sea shells), and clumps of "rusty mud" appear when iron within the mud starts to oxidize. "Swash lines" composed of tidal debris intersect the marsh flats after the water has ebbed out.

Marsh mud itself is made when rain and river water bring in topsoil that has run off from dry land. The silt follows the slower currents into steep banks of the tidal stream. With time, the ooze slows the channel flow. The marsh grasses then colonize the sediment fields (and are covered to some extent at high tide). Mr. Meyer wrote, "Marsh sediments are stabilized by spartina as much as sand dunes are stabilized by Sea Oats and Beach Grass. Spartina grows taller near the water’s edge, smaller near higher land." These grasses seldom produce any fruit.

Regarding the origin of the term, "pluff mud", the Myrtle Beach Convention Center’s webmaster offered this explanation: "‘Pluff’ is actually the sound you hear when your truck keys fall out of your shorts pocket, while you're climbing over the side to drag the boat out of the aforementioned pluff mud." The closest match of meaning for "pluff" in the Oxford English Dictionary is "to blow out (smoke or breath) with explosive action, to puff". The sound of the word echoes the noise it describes.

And then there’s that distinct "marsh smell". Though certainly an acquired taste, marsh smell has long been the first sign of homecoming for Lowcountry people returning from trips away from the mudflats (the cover of Pat Conroy’s novel, The Prince of Tides, depicted a salt marsh vista, after all). The smell is not sewage or pollution, as many newcomers suppose, though sulfur dioxide fumes from Savannah’s paper mills have reached Beaufort on southwesterly winds. Mr. Ballantine wrote, "the fine-packed (mud) sediments are oxygen poor. Here native anaerobic bacteria decay bottom matter and release hydrogen sulfide ... a poisonous gas smelling of rotten eggs."


It is not the paper mill! It is pluff mud!

18 comments:

Essence said...

hi swampfox, I love the smell of mud! I just starting blogging and surfing which led me to your site. Thanks goodness I'm not the only one who loves mud. *Smiles from Essence ~ http://ramblings-unearthed.blogspot.com/

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