“When you steps in it, you sticks,” say the Gullah people of the gooey marsh mud that lines Lowcountry creeks. “Smells like home,” nods the native Charlestonian, breathing in the pungent odor it exudes at low tide. The rich sediment is an essential element of a healthy saltwater marsh, providing food and shelter to a multitude of creatures, seen and unseen
Pluff or Plough? Only in the Carolina Lowcountry is this marsh mainstay called “pluff” or “plough” mud. Both pronunciations and spellings are acceptable. The name originated in the early 1800s when coastal planters began using the nutrient-rich substance as a fertilizer and would plow (then spelled “plough”) it into the fields. How ”pluff” came into play, no one’s quite sure.
Digging In Pluff mud provides burrowing grounds for many beings that can live in a low-oxygen environment, including fiddler crabs, clams, and worms. Larger animals such as birds, raccoons, and fish then come to feed on these creatures. All play a role in the salt marsh’s intricate food web.
Great Gobs of Goo The mud is a mix of algae, decaying animal and plant matter (particularly spartina grass reeds), and sediment. Bacterial detritivores, which feed on the dead and decomposing organic matter, live within it, respiring without oxygen in a process that removes sulfate from the water and releases hydrogen sulfide into the mud. Thus, the ”rotten egg” smell.
Plop Culture The complex salt marsh-tidal creek ecosystem—incredibly valuable to marine life for many reasons—is made up of numerous zones and habitats. Among these, pluff mud is usually found in the tidal creeks and low marsh (a zone that reaches from the creek bank to the mid-marsh and is covered with saltwater for half the day).
Horse Sense The native horse called the “marsh tacky” is especially renowned for its ability to cross this volatile stuff without “bogging,” as a 1933 Charleston News and Courier article put it. The piece continued, “...when a tackey [sic] wishes to cross a particularly treacherous piece of plough mud, he lies down on his side and pushes his body along by using his feet as paddles. Several Edistonians say that they have witnessed this spectacle.”