Sweetgrass Uses and Benefits

by Victoria Finlay

What is Sweetgrass?

Sweetgrass is an aromatic grass with long, satiny leaves that's considered sacred in many world religions. "Hierochloë" is a combination of a Greek and a Latin word meaning 'Holy Grass" which is another common name for it. Also known as Vanilla Grass, Seneca Grass, Zebrovka, Managrass and Buffalo Grass, it's well known to many Indigenous people in Canada and the United States as a material for baskets, as well as a scent, medicine and smudge. In Northern Europe, sweetgrass is strewn in front of church doors on saints' day to create a pleasant odor in the church. It's also used as a sain within Scottish folk magic practices. As such a widely revered and used sacred plant, sweetgrass is still harvested today, and continues to play and important role in Indigenous and European cultures. 

What Does Sweetgrass Look Like?

Sweetgrass is a perennial grass in the Poaceae family. While it's usually placed in the genus Hierochloë, it's sometimes included within the genus Anthoxanthum. It is often treated as one species, Hierochloë odorata, but taxonomists recognize up to four species, two of which grow in Canada: Common Sweetgrass (Hierochloë hirta subspecies arctica) and Alpine Sweetgrass (H. alpina).

The flat, bright green leaves can grow up to three feet tall and have a reddish color at their base. There are small greenish flowers that grow in branching clusters at the top of slender, upright stalks. Because the seeds are small and often infertile, they rarely germinate to create new plants. Sweetgrass reproduces using it's creeping, underground stems. These stems, known as rhizomes, grow horizontally under the earth, creating dense patches of grass that can be manually divided up to produce new plants. 

Where Does Sweetgrass Grow?

Sweetgrass thrives in diverse habitats and is circumpolar in distribution. Members of the genus are native to northern Eurasia, Iceland, Greenland, Canada and the United States (except within the south central and southeastern regions). In Canada, common sweetgrass grows near rivers, lake edges, and wet meadows, often forming dense patches from sea level to subalpine zones. Alpine sweetgrass grows near sea level in the Arctic, on rocky slopes and in meadows in subalpine and alpine areas in other parts of Canada, especially in the Pacific Coastal and Rocky Mountains. 

How To Harvest Sweetgrass

Methods of harvesting depend on the cultural traditions of the harvesters. Some cultures cut the grass blades at the base, while others pull up clusters of the leaves with their pink bases intact. Usually sweetgrass is harvested in the summer during the growing season, and harvesters select the vegetative plants rather than the flowering or fruiting plants. Many Indigenous experts affirm that continuous harvesting of sweetgrass helps to maintain the patches. If the sweetgrass meadows are neglected they will gradually disappear and be replaced by other grasses, herbs and shrubs. Some cultures traditionally burn over their sweetgrass meadows every few years as a way of renewing them and enhancing their productivity. 

Sweetgrass Uses

Sweetgrass is known for it's sweet scent. The vanilla like fragrance is produced by an aromatic compound known as coumarin, which is even more evident once the leaves are dried. Sweetgrass is strewn on floors as a room freshener, used to stuff pillows and mattresses, woven into baskets and hats, and - usually after the leaves are plaited into a long, thick braid - burned as a purifying smudge, incense or sain. More recently, people have used sweetgrass in aromatherapy, and as a scent for candles and bath salts. In parts of Europe it's used as distinctive flavoring in tobacco, sweets and distilled beverages like vodka. There are many medicinal applications for sweetgrass as well, ranging from treating colds to the treatment of venereal infections. 

Sweetgrass As A Sacred Plant

For Indigenous peoples in North America, sweetgrass is revered as a sacred medicine. Many see it as a cultural keystones species, reflecting a group's cultural identity and embodying their values and beliefs. Braids of sweetgrass have been burned during ceremonies for generations by Northern American Indians. The smoke of burning sweetgrass will purify and cleanse places, objects and people. The three strands of the braid represent the mind, body and spirit, all working together in unity. Sweetgrass is still considered a sacred plant by many native tribes of North America and is traditionally used as incense in many sacred ceremonies, purifications processes, healing rituals, peace ceremonies, and initiations. It is said that the sweet smelling smoke cleanses the spirit and brings sacred messages to the higher planes of existence. 

Sweetgrass leaves at the harvestable stage are bright green, depending on when they are picked and how quickly they are dried, the leaves turn light green to straw-colored. For weaving into baskets, the dried leaves are soaked and then coiled or twined, alone or with other materials to create the foundation. Experienced weavers often mix sweetgrass dried in different ways to create subtle designs, or add a few dyed leaves as colored decorations. Hats, dolls and other items are also crafted from sweetgrass leaves. 

On the Great Plains, the Siksika (Blackfoot) and their relatives have many uses for sweetgrass, which they call sipatsimo. They use it as a ceremonial incense during daily prayers, burn it at major tribal events such as the Sundance, and use the smoke to purify tribal dancers. Siksika also used sweetgrass leaves to treat saddle sores on their horses, packed braided sweetgrass leaves into saddles, and fed their horses sweetgrass to give them stamina. Medicinaly they also inhaled sweetgrass smoke and drank and infusion of the plant for coughs, colds and sore throats. The water in which the stems had been soaked was used as an eyewash. 

Sweetgrass was regularly used to make a hair tonic and wash, not only bu the Siksika, but also by the Nlaka'pamux (Thompson) of British Coloumbia, who call sweetgrass xásxast (literally 'good, good'). The Nlaka'pamux were said to have traded with the Siksika for sweetgrass braids. Other Interior Salish Peoples as well as the Ktunaxa of British Columbia, also use sweetgrass for ceremonial and medicinal purposes. On the far west coast of Canada, the Nuxalk (Bella Coola) have been using sweetgrass from the estuary of the Bella Coola River for ceremonial purposes for generations. According to some, they also learned about using sweetgrass from the Siksika, who were said to have visited the Nuxalk at some point in the early 20th century. 

Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass book by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Elders tells us that a braid of sweetgrass is made up of three groups, each group represents the past, present and future. There are 21 strands of sweetgrass in total.

Burning Sweetgrass

The smoke of sweetgrass produces a sweet and light fragrance that is excellent for cleansing sacred spaces. Sweetgrass is believed to invite the good spirits and sweet dispositions. It is often burned at the beginning of a prayer or ceremony to attract positive energies. Like sage, cedar, and juniper, sweetgrass is used to purify the home. 

Looking for a sweetgrass braid? You can find that here!


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