This heirloom grain, together with the skilled knowledge and forced labor of West Africans and their descendants, made South Carolina very, very rich. From 1720 to the outbreak of the Civil War, rice was the most economically valuable crop for this state. White landowners, who thought rice would do well in the low country, themselves lacked practical knowledge of rice cultivation. Instead, they paid a premium to slave traders to capture and transport laborers from the well-established rice region of West Africa to Carolina. During the 18th century, many enslaved people brought into Charleston came from this rice-growing area. These people and their descendants created the Gullah-Geechee culture in the low country.
Many Clemson faculty, past and present, are intimately involved in preserving and promoting Carolina Gold. In 1988, Merle Shepherd, Clemson professor emeritus, established the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, which led to a renaissance for this grain. This year, we at the South Carolina Botanical Garden were fortunate to become part of the story. A small paddy was created in the Hanover House Garden and seeded with Carolina Gold rice. Dr. R. Karthikeyan, Professor & Charles Carter Newman Endowed Chair of Natural Resources Engineering, is researching these plants for water and nutrient use. Last week, I found him in the garden harvesting these beautiful grains.
Professor Karthikeyan is part of a research group doing some critically important and fascinating work on the salt tolerance of Carolina Gold. This project relates directly to changes in both the coastal environment and local water sources as they are salinized by tidal rivers, sea level rise, hurricanes, and human activities. As underground aquifers are being tapped to provide water for a growing population, saltwater is being drawn in to replace the freshwater, which directly affects the area where “Carolina Gold” historically grew.
For more information, see Clemson Aims to Boost Organic Rice Production in Salty Coastal SC through Federal Grant and The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation.
The research team credit: Dr. Brian Ward (PI), Dr. Matthew Cutulle, Dr. Sarah White, Dr. Michael Vassalos, and Dr. R. Karthikeyan (Clemson, University, SC); and Dr. Jai Rohila (USDA National Rice Research Center, Stuttgart, AR).