A lowcountry Spring is an olfactory celebration. Stroll along one of Hilton Head’s many waterfront boardwalks and your nose might be entertained by a whiff of Carolina Jessamine, the tang of smoke from a BBQ smoker or a hint a salt air. But there is one scent that trumps them all, especially at low tide. It is the smell that makes visitors wrinkle there nose in confusion and even emit the occasional “Ewwww…what IS that?”. It is the smell of our Pluff Mud.
A unique substance, ranging in texture from a clay-like density to a fluffy chocolate mousse like consistency, pluff mud is quite literally what the lowcountry marsh eco-system is built upon. Made up predominantly from decomposed Spartina grass, pluff mud is the product of decay. This slimy, viscous sediment is also where the majority of the small critters in the marsh begin and end their life, making it a nutritiously rich substance. As anaerobic bacteria busily goes to work devouring all this yummy stuff, hydrogen sulfides are released and, TAH-DAH! That one of a kind scent is released into the air when the mud is disturbed by our quick moving tides or various water craft.
It is, in fact, the rich, organic element of this mud that leads to the story of how it earned its name. It is an old story, stretching back to when our vacationer’s paradise was a hard working plantation island, producing sea island cotton and indigo. As the plantation soil became depleted, pluff mud was dried, ground and used as a fertilizer. Hence it is said to originally be called “plough mud”. When the sea island slaves were freed and our Gullah community was born, our indigenous people took that term “plough mud” and, in the way of their beautifully onomatopoetic language, transitioned it into the sound it makes when you step into it… Pluff.
Pluff Mud is considered to be a foundational element of our marsh environment. Aside from the fact that it is what our island is built on, pluff mud is one of the ingredients that makes Hilton Head a barrier island. It can absorb the energy of storms like a sponge and helps control coastal flooding. That, coupled with the fact that shrimp, crabs, fish, snails and more are born from this mud, makes it a precious part of our island landscape.
Embracing the eau de pluff mud is a challenge for some. Visitors will often refer to it as the smell of rotten eggs or a burnt match. But if you live here that smell becomes a comforting, familiar fragrance that is intertwined with all that is beautiful here on Hilton Head. After returning from an extended time away from the area you might find yourself, as you near the island, rolling down your windows and greedily snurfing up what has become the smell of home. Pat Conroy, author and native son to Beaufort County, wrote, “I don’t know of any place that smells like this. It’s a magnificent smell. It’s the smell of where all life comes from.”
To #getoutside and learn even more about pluff mud and all the amazing elements of our lowcountry marsh, log on to outsidehiltonhead.com and book a kayak, paddle board or boating adventure!