The Scent of Pluff Mud

For some, it is a reminder of home.

Pluff Mud
Photo: ehrlif/Getty Images

If you've ever paid a visit to South Carolina, you know a few things to be true: There's nothing more beautiful than the Carolina coast – and that the Lowcountry has a super distinct smell. That second one — the smell — is all thanks to the state's unique mud known lovingly as "pluff mud."

South Carolina, the state Department of Natural Resources explained, has more than 344,000 acres of salt marsh, which means it has the most marshland of any state along the East Coast. And the bottom of those salt marshes is lined with a type of mud known as pluff mud.

Because it sits on the bottom of the marsh it can smell a bit different than mud in other areas. That, Outside Hilton Head explained, is because when the marsh grass dies, along with any fish or animals, it settles on the bottom and decomposes there.

It may sound a little icky, but all that decomposition is healthy for the marsh as it makes the pluff mud rich with nutrients. And all those nutrients put off a sulfur gas, which causes the distinct aroma.

"There are basically four naturally occurring components of a salt marsh: the tidal water, the pluff mud, the cordgrass, and oysters," Hilton Head's own website explained. "Each of these plays a crucial role and each is reliant on the stability of the others for the salt marsh environment to succeed."

The tides, it added, push the salty waters into the depths of the salt marsh. Then, when the tide goes out so does the water. And this constant movement allows for "the dynamic exchange of nutrients to and from the ocean." While the cordgrass helps keep the pluff mud in place, the mud also supports the root system of the grasses, along with the vast oyster beds we all love to enjoy.

Never smelled pluff mud? Leave a few rotten eggs out for a day. That's about as close as you'll get to the smell of pluff mud. Never felt it? Well, maybe let it just sit and be because if you touch it you'll likely get the dark, oozy material all over you. And if you step on it, you'll most certainly lose a shoe.

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But, even though it smells and feels a bit funky that odor is not only distinctly South Carolina's, it's also why we all get to enjoy the delicious seafood we do. So go ahead, give it a whiff, and say thank you.

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