What is Sweetgrass?
Sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata or Anthoxanthum nitens) is an aromatic herb native to North America, Greenland, Iceland, Northern Europe and Asia. Depending on the location, it is also known as Holy Grass, Seneca Grass, Alpine Sweetgrass, Peace Grass and Vanilla Sweetgrass. It is a member of the grass family known as Poaceae – pronounced (poh-AY-see-ee). It’s botanical name, Hierochloe odorata, is from the Greek words “hieros” meaning “sacred” and “chloë” meaning “grass” and literally translated as Holy Grass. Holy Grass was strewn before church doors on Saint’s Day, inside cathedrals to scent the air, at church festivals and in some places dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Northern Europe.
The scent of Sweetgrass is mellow, yet distinctive. It is reminiscent of a fresh spring rain on the prairie or new mown hay. The dried grass is used to scent pillows, clothing, and for weaving baskets. Its fragrance is due to the presence of coumarins, a vanilla-scented compound which is also present in a number of other species including Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum), Sweet Clover (Melilotus officinalis), and Sweet Vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum). The aroma becomes more pronounced when the grass is dried, and it can last for many years.
Coumarins have been used for a number of purposes such as herbal medicines, as a flavoring agent for candy, soft drinks, tea, vodka, and tobacco. In the USA, coumarins are allowed for flavoring alcohol but not approved for food. There is concern because high levels of coumarin act as a blood thinner where too much in the body causes hemorrhaging (internal bleeding). Coumarin and phytol are two chemical found in Sweetgrass that helps repel mosquitos.
Sweetgrass is an aromatic, cool-season perennial growing 10-36 inches and spreading about 2 feet per year by underground rhizomes. It’s aromatic narrow leaf blades are 7 to 15 inches. The edges of the leaf blades are slightly rough. The flowering parts are held in an open branched flowering structure. The fertile spikelets (structures within which the flowers are held) are borne on hairless steams. The spikelets are composed of two sterile florets and one fertile floret. The fruit is a small, dry thin-walled fruit with a single seed fused to the ovary wall (this fused product found in most grass species is termed a caryopsis. Sweetgrass seeds typically have a low germination rate. Fortunately, a single seedling can produce hundreds of plants because the roots produce many rhizomes which develop into new plants. It is an early blooming plant and flowers from May to July. It is harvested in late Fall and before the first frost for the best scent. On one of our trips out West, I purchased a ringlet of braided Sweetgrass and when pressed, it still has its aroma. I was told that the three strands represent mind, body and spirit.
Sweetgrass is found growing across the prairies of North America, in boreal regions, and right up into the Arctic. It is circumpolar (situated around or inhabiting one of the earth’s poles) in distribution which means the species also grows in Greenland, Iceland, northern Europe and Asia. Approximately 13 species of Hierochloe are reported to exist, but there is some confusion as to which ones are actually a separate species, and which ones are merely a closely related race of the same species. There is even one species, Hierochloe redolens, found in Tasmania, and an alpine species, Hierochloe alpina, found in the mountains of North America. In Europe, it occurs north from Switzerland. There is only one site in Ireland, and it is recorded in four counties of Scotland. Its natural habitat is wetlands, low prairies, mountain slopes, floodplains, cool mountain canyons, shorelines and savannas in wet and medium moisture soils. Sweetgrass prefers rich, moist soils, but will grow in almost any soil that receives a minimum of a half day of sun.
The burning of Sweetgrass braids for ceremonial purposes has long been part of the Native American culture in North America. It is considered one of the four sacred herbs of the First Nations used in traditional ceremonies to promote peace and healing and its scent is thought to evoke a relaxing meditative state. The four sacred herbs are cedar, sage tobacco and sweetgrass. In Native American Spirituality, Sweetgrass, is known as the sacred hair of Mother Earth and used for prayer, smudging, purification, protection of spirits and keeping out evil or harm.
They had many uses for Sweetgrass in their everyday life such as for making baskets, which has become an artform, to mats and various decorative crafts, and a tea brewed medicinally for colds, coughs and sore throats. It was also used to help induce sleep, used for personal hygiene and helpful during pregnancy and women’s issues.
Today, there is no essential oil of Sweetgrass being distilled that I am aware of, but there is a lovely Sweetgrass Hydrosol being distilled. The Sweetgrass Hydrosol we carry is steam-distilled comes from Canada.
- Here’s some suggested Sweetgrass Hydrosol uses:Can be misted into the air as a liquid smudge where the burning of Sweetgrass braids is not allowed – such as in hospitals or other public places where smoking is not permitted.
Has been used as an ingredient for cooking eg. Sweetgrass syrup, cheesecakes, tea.
Could be used as an ingredient in cosmetic products.
Makes a unique fragrance alone or blended with essential oils to be used as an air freshener for vehicles, bathrooms, etc.
Add to essential oil infusers along with oils or in place of them.
Always walk the path of peace~