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.