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What is Sweetgrass?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Sweetgrass is a hardy perennial plant that produces long leaf blades with a very distinctive scent. The plant has been used in traditional crafts such as baskets for centuries, and it has also been employed in herbal medicine and as a flavoring for alcohol. It is relatively easy to grow in temperate climates, and it can make an attractive garden feature. Dried sweetgrass for craft use is often available from crafting stores, along with finished products made from it. Many native groups continue to produce traditional grass baskets for sale to the public.

The scientific name for sweetgrass is Hierochloe odorata, but the plant has a number of aliases including manna grass, vanilla grass, Mary's grass, Seneca grass, bison grass, and holy grass. These names reflect the myriad uses for the leaves; during the medieval era, for example, it was often scattered on floors and church doorsteps to yield a sweet scent when people stepped on it. As a result, it became closely associated with churches. It also came to be associated with buffalo because it was a common botanical feature on the American Great Plains.

The plant can be found in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Some botanists suspect that truly wild sweetgrass may not exist, as human populations have probably been cultivating strongly scented or special grasses for thousands of years. The plant can be harvested in the wild, or grown for commercial use; since it spreads through an underground root system, it is easy to propagate through plugs.

Some garden suppliers carry sweetgrass plugs that can be transplanted into the garden as decorative plants or into meadows which are specifically set up for easier harvesting. If the plant is being grown for the purpose of commercial use, it is usually grown in rows to make it easy to cut and pile the grass in the summer, when the scent is at its height. After being dried to discourage mold and mildew, the plant can be braided or coiled for storage.

The Native Americans had many traditions surrounding sweetgrass, and it was a popular inclusion in baskets and sacred objects. Different tribes had their own beliefs about the plant, but many beliefs focused on the idea that it could purify or sanctify spaces, or that it could ward off bad luck. The plant is also a mild sedative, making it popular in calming teas or tisanes which are meant to promote healthy sleep.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By wander — On Jul 22, 2011

Sweetgrass is a really lovely plant and if you are looking to add some texture to your garden I would recommend you add some to highlight your garden.

Sweetgrass can grow to be rather tall, and with its long thin blade leaves it is probably best suited for the center of a garden, or near the back.

Sweetgrass isn't sold everywhere so you may need to find a store to order from online if you are looking for seeds. In many places it is considered a bit of a specialty plant and can only be ordered on a special request.

For myself, I buy the sweetgrass seeds online as they are cheaper and are pretty good quality.

By drtroubles — On Jul 22, 2011

@horsebite - It is too bad your stepmother has been embarrassing you with her new age adoption of a very old tradition

Native Americans have used sweetgrass for the purpose of smudging for eons and it is a very old tradition and is much more than just purifying a place against evil spirits and bad luck. While it has been used in ceremonies for centuries it also has a more common function. Often Native Americans who smudge do so to center themselves, so smudging in many ways could be described as more a meditative aid. For those who use sweetgrass this way it is quite similar to how some use incense to help them meditate. There isn't really a whole lot mystical about it.

By horsebite — On Jul 22, 2011

My stepmother is very much into Native American spirituality, and she uses sweetgrass for "smudging", or purifying a place against evil spirits and bad luck. She's a really nice lady, but it is a bit unnerving to have just walked into some kind of a family function and this sort of new-age hippie looking woman is sticking a bundle of burning grass in your space.

I learned to warn new friends about it, and they took it in the spirit it was intended, but it did freak a couple of people out when I forgot to let them know.

By parkthekarma — On Jul 21, 2011

@behaviourism - I agree with you that hemp is extremely useful and versatile. Up until World War II, and especially during the war, the government aggressively encouraged farmers to grow hemp to use in rope and other things for the military.

Nowadays, it is illegal to grow in the United States, even for industrial purposes. There is a way to grow it so it is not useable as a drug, but even that way is against the law.

I hope that changes some day, because I think that there is a real market for things made from natural materials. That is what I like about sweetgrass too, not only the look of it, but the fact that it is natural and easy on the environment.

By Catapult — On Jul 20, 2011

@behaviourism- I agree that natural resources like hemp and sweetgrass are really useful. Not only can you make clothing from them, but also paper, plastic, and even things like building materials. They're great resources, we should use them more.

By behaviourism — On Jul 19, 2011

@andee- I love natural fibers and really hope, too, that they will grow in popularity. Sweetgrass is a really useful plant, not to mention hemp, which gets a bad rap because of it's relation to marijuana -- but the two have almost nothing in common besides appearance. Hopefully shops like the one you described will keep growing, selling things like hemp or sweetgrass products.

By andee — On Jul 19, 2011

I have been interested in buying some hemp or sweetgrass clothing after purchasing an organic cotton t-shirt from an online company.

I was surprised at how soft the material was I am very supportive of the companies who make and sell natural clothing.

We have one shop at a local mall in our town, and his business has continued to grow every year. I think this is something that people will become much more aware of and interested in as we focus more on being green.

By golf07 — On Jul 18, 2011

I have a skirt and top from a sweetgrass clothing company that has some of the most comfortable clothing I have ever worn. I love the look and feel of their fabric and know that I am supporting companies that use natural fibers that are not grown with any chemicals.

This style has a simple, yet classy look to it that is comfortable for me and also much better for me than synthetic material. I am hoping to buy several more pieces of clothing like this.

By LisaLou — On Jul 18, 2011

When our family was on vacation in South Carolina I kept seeing these beautiful baskets. I learned that they were handmade baskets made with sweetgrass and also learned a little bit about the history behind them.

I purchased a couple of these Charleston sweetgrass baskets and have been impressed with their quality and beautiful design. You can tell they are very well made and I find many ways to use them and not just admire them.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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