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Sweetgrass used to weave iconic baskets endangered in SC; govt. agencies stepping in to help

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ST. STEPHEN, S.C. - For most of his 80 years, Joe Mazyck has been harvesting the soft, pliable sweetgrass used to make the iconic baskets that have been woven by slaves and their descendants for centuries along the nation's Southeast coast.

But the grass, which gets its name from the fresh fragrance of its leaves, has been harder to come by in recent years because of breakneck development in the coastal areas where it grows, from North Carolina to Texas.

"The habitat is just giving out. Every piece of ground there is they are building something on," the Mount Pleasant resident said Wednesday.

"A lot of people like waterfront property and that's done away with a lot of the sweetgrass. At one point basket weaving was considered a dying art," agreed Lynette Youson, a fifth-generation weaver also from Mount Pleasant.

But local, state and federal government agencies are helping to ensure weavers have grass for their baskets, woven by the descendants of slaves in the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor running from North Carolina to Florida.

Mazyck and Youson were among a small group of harvesters invited Wednesday to harvest, or pull, sweetgrass on a tract owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about an hour north of Charleston.

The grass is naturally growing but the Corps' Charleston District has also planted more than 13,000 plants in tracts along the coast from the North Carolina line to Daufuskie Island on South Carolina's southern tip.

The Town of Mount Pleasant and the state of South Carolina, at its Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site in Charleston, have also planted sweetgrass that can be harvested.

The Corps' plantings on the coast are to reduce erosion and establish sweetgrass again in places where it has been destroyed by development or erosion.

In the past, Mazyck said, he has travelled south to Georgia to find the grass, usually woven with pine straw and rushes to make baskets.

"Along the coast it will do great in one spot and not so great in another. It likes sandy soil and a bit of shade," said Tommy Socha, a plant materials specialist for the Corps. "It's a tough plant and another great thing about it is the beauty. It blooms in the fall and is really gorgeous."

Indeed, Wednesday was a bit late for the harvest because some of the plants were already showing the delicate pink tips that indicate it is going to seed.

Wednesday was the first harvest at the St. Stephen site. In the future, other Corps sweetgrass plantings will be harvested.

After about 45 minutes of pulling, Youson had enough grass for four or five baskets. That will keep her busy weaving for about a month and a half.

Youson, 50, has been weaving for 46 years. Now that there seems to be a more stable supply of sweetgrass, she worries about handing down the tradition.

"Today we are in competition against instant gratification among the younger generation," she said, adding she has at least taught her daughters to weave baskets.

"That's a big thing to continue the art because maybe one day they will get that interest again and will want to pass it on to their kids," she said.

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