Sweetgrass Holds a Special Place in the Hearts of Charlestonians

How Sweet It Is

Sweetgrass Holds a Special Place in the Hearts of Charlestonians

By Anita B. Stone

Homesteaders, country crafts and cultural traditional art seem to thrive in a parallel universe across the globe. Regardless of location, everyone has become doorkeepers of their own eco-friendly environments, sustainability and green space in an attempt to preserve tradition and maintain a healthy society. So it is with basket weavers who collect and weave from the land in order to create artistic forms. Unforgettable crafts and traditions continue to thrive, some reaching the boundaries of extinction.

Agritourism and history weave a tangle of tradition in the city of Charleston, South Carolina, and continues to amaze visitors through generational crafts. Although noted for its charm, elegance and aesthetic magnetism, the city is popularized for a culture that began more than 400 years ago during the plantation era—the artistry of sweetgrass basket-making, one of the oldest forms of basket weaving.

Originating in Africa, sweetgrass basketry remains popular in the 21st century. Although time has not depleted the art, progress has begun to affect the tradition because of land development. So you might say that progress has begun to deteriorate one of the greatest and oldest forms of art.

The history and equipment is simple. Sweetgrass weavers utilize a perennial known as Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaries filipes) grass as a staple.

Ascertained botanically in 1843, Muhly Grass Basketry has been handed down through generations, introduced into the low country in South Carolina. Sweet oil resonates from these baskets; hence, the sweetgrass basket logo. Today Sweetgrass basket making involves four woven ingredients, including bulrush (Scirpus lacustris), long leaf pine needles (pinus palustris), sweetgrass (muhlenbergia), sewn with strips of palmetto leaf (Sabal palmetto).

Muhly grass is a flexible, soft material and grows in rich moist soil. The baskets themselves suggest salty marshland and fresh hay. The major component of grass grows in bands along tide lines, usually near sandy soil and as some report being close to dunes along the ocean. Because of the depletion of sweetgrass, new areas are being explored, extending from South Carolina, along the coast around islands such as Kiawah (where Indian tribes once inhabited the land), Seabrook and Hilton Head, to name a few, to Texas.

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Photos by Chris J. Kottyan
Photos by Chris J. Kottyan

In its prime, sweetgrass baskets were woven by African slaves who not only crafted them but sold them to patrons and plantation owners. Those who purchased the baskets began filling and transporting vegetables. If we fast forward from plantation days to current life, sweetgrass baskets continue to be used as an agricultural tool, as a continuous cultural enterprise and as an ornamental flare. Basket weavers carried on the tradition for centuries. Because the grasses grow in wetlands and marshes, water will not hurt the baskets. They can be washed in soapy water and rinsed in cold water and should then be air-dried.

Photos by Chris J. Kottyan
Photos by Chris J. Kottyan

Basket making has always involved the entire family. Men and boys would gather the materials, while women designed several baskets of different size and proportions for everyday storage, including bread baskets, fruit carriers, sewing paraphernalia, and clothing. Men also began the craft, weaving large baskets from bulrush, marsh grass found in the area. Rice baskets became popular during the rice and cotton plantation era. Each time the rice was collected the process would rid the rice of the husk. Rice baskets were used for carrying cotton, seafood, grain and bread. Fanner baskets were woven to resemble fan-like art and would become a staple in the homes of many plantation owners.

From field to trade, this traditional craft has survived generations and will continue to do so. An impressive interview with sweetgrass weaver, Celestine Flippen, revealed that she and her four sisters, as well as six grandchildren, practice the art of sweetgrass basket making. A weaver of 22 years, she explained how time-consuming it is to make one basket. She exuded a sense of pride as she spoke, as though she were at the top of her class. One could almost feel her enjoyment through the sparkle in her eyes and the sureness of her voice. “It can take as much as two and one-half months to make one basket,” says Flippen. “It is very hard work,” she added.

Photos by Chris J. Kottyan
Photos by Chris J. Kottyan

During the rice and cotton plantation era, large baskets became increasingly popular for carrying agricultural products from place to place. Many people wove, collected and stored vegetables in sweetgrass baskets, which held their needs. The same farmers often sold their baskets to other plantation owners.

What is causing the depletion of sweetgrass? Due to an influx of land

development along coastal islands and marshlands, developers often ignore preservation of sweetgrass because it is visualized as a weed or brush that requires clearing. If we are not careful natural sweetgrass may become extinct and a historic art form will be lost along with part of the culture of a people. To curb extensive growth is a complex situation. As a horticultural and educational community we need to be concerned with the preservation and cultivation of this perennial. Search for materials has taken basket makers outside the community from North Carolina to Florida. Public interest and land access must continue if the art is to progress.

Basket makers are both designers and technicians of their own creation. That is why no two baskets look the same and premium prices are requested.

Not far from Charleston, once a small fishing village for half a century, Mt. Pleasant offered a large source of sweetgrass basketry. Today it has dwindled also because of land development and, therefore, roadside stands have lessened in number. Roadside basket stands are directly accessible to tourists, where you can see the weavers working hard. Many descendants of slaves hold the distinction of being the only place where this particular type of basketry is handmade.

The Sweetgrass Preservation Society is doing what it can to keep this traditional trade alive. A South Carolina politician introduced a bill to allow sweetgrass baskets to become the state craft. The palmetto, a major material within the basket, is the state tree. And the tourist trade enhances the thriving of the industry.

In 1988, a biological and ecological assessment was made regarding sweetgrass resources and the impact of coastal development. The results of the conference were positive, including several public and private industries that pledged support of the sweetgrass. Even city zoning progressed forward by the pledge to make preservation of the basket stands a goal. The Association of Mt. Pleasant Basketmakers is leading the way to promote, preserve and protect sweetgrass tradition.

In June 2003, Charleston Sweetgrass was formed to bring 21st century support to basket makers. Descendents of slaves from West Africa continue the tradition with over 100 styles of baskets available and for sale. There is even a sweetgrass basket repair service for those who require it.

The mission statement of Sweetgrass is “to preserve the heritage, legacy and traditions of the culture and their basket-making art form. To protect the sweetgrass natural habitats and its environment from destruction by: utilizing the yearly Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival as a venue to bring focus and attention to the declining natural habitat locations where basket makers harvest the sweetgrass needed to produce their art form. …To be totally inclusive of all sweetgrass basket makers…in our efforts to protect and preserve the culture.”

A variety of basketweavers continue to thrive on the homestead, beginning with a practice that has lasted for centuries. One of the most important concepts to remember is if we want to hold and keep any art forms intact for future generations, we must take responsibility to preserve the environment and its natural resources.

Not only is sweetgrass important to Charleston’s history, it’s interwoven into family histories. With the determination and dedication of sweetgrass weavers such as Celestine Flippin, her family and descendants, the historical art form, with its one-of-a-kind beautiful designs and patterns, will continue to grow and prosper.

Anita B. Stone writes regularly about plants and gardening for Countryside.

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