My first interaction With Sweet Grass
I first became aware of the plant Sweetgrass when I was 19 years old and saw Akwesasne Mohawk women harvesting wild sweetgrass from a large wild patch near Stockholm, NY not far from where I lived on a hippy commune called The Pickle Street Pig Farm!
It was 1976 and there was a lot of fun to be had that summer…but it was also a summer to remember because the Mohawk basket makers who were harvesting the Sweetgrass taught me some important life lessons. Not only was Sweetgrass to be used in Mohawk basketry but it was also braided and burned as a woman’s prayer herb and purifying smoke.
The Mohawk women told me their people were instructed by the Creator to braid their intentions into a swag and then burn it to release their intentions onto the wind. This is a good way to communicate with the universe.
The baskets and the braids and the smoke all sounded really good to me when I was 19 and it began my life long relationship with growing and using this fragrant, beautiful and special plant.
It has made my life better in so many ways, so I hope that if you have a chance to grow it for yourself you will do so. So let me tell you how you can grow your own sweet grass in your home:
Grow Your Own Sweet Grass
You can purchase Sweetgrass Plants from the Eco Seeds web site and they also have all the information you need for growing and tending your own sweetgrass patch. Even a small 4 ft. x 4 ft. patch is large enough for home use. If you cannot buy any plants let me know and I will send you some root stock in the fall or the early spring. I have a very large patch and I’m willing to share.
Traditionally there are 2 ways to grow its ceremonial/ holy grass:
- Directly grow it from the seeds
- Plant the grass from the Plugs
Growing with the seeds
When planting your sweetgrass from seed, I would suggest you to wait till Spring, as winter conditions are not suitable for the growth of these grass. If you want to you can start growing your sweet grass in indoors and then transfer it outside in the spring.
When the spring season arrives, dig a 2 inches deep hole for seeds in just about any type of soil. If your soil is heavy add some sand. You can also add one to two inches of shredded cedar bark which will help to eliminate the weeds and will help retain the moisture. When growing indoors, use a small pot to sow the seed and cover it with a quarter-inch of soil.
Make sure to put the pot in a place where it receives ample sun exposure. The germination period usually takes 4 to 6 weeks.
Growing with the Plugs
When growing the sweetgrass with plugs its best to keep the plugs shaded and watered well for at least two weeks to allow the plants to establish their new roots.
Dig the hole big enough to cover the roots and add topsoil that is 2 to 3 inches deep. The Sweetgrass plugs should be around eight to twelve inches apart.
You must add fertilizer 2 to 3 times to the soil during the peak growing season. Sweetgrass plants love bonemeal and blood meal powder. Keep the soil moist, but don’t over soak the roots or it might rot them.
The Harvesting Season
Late June to early July is considered as the best season for harvesting sweetgrass. However I would recommend to harvest very lightly in the first year of planting.
Never pick the Sweetgrass by pulling the roots out of soil, simply cut the stem into 2 to 3 inches from the base.
After harvesting, lay out the leaves to dry in direct sun and turn every 40 minutes. On a dry breezy day, the leaves should dry within six hours.
The Essence of Sweetgrass
Sweetgrass’s flat bright green leaves smell like vanilla and cut grass, fresh and sweet. The name Sweetgrass reflects the smell, usually sweet is used to describe flowery scents, but this is an apt name for the light, delicate smell of this plant. As the leaves reach the ground they grow a purple tint.
Since sweetgrass is a perennial it comes back to grow year after year, growing up to half a meter tall, sometimes growing even taller than that. Their small yellow flowers produce seeds, however, the seeds, if planted, will often not germinate, because the plant spreads and reproduces through its long underground roots.
Sweetgrass goes by a number of different names depending on the region, or the people talking about it. There are several varieties of sweetgrass including common sweetgrass and alpine sweetgrass. Sweetgrass is also most popularly known as bison grass, vanilla grass, buffalo grass, and holy grass.
The Tradition of Sweetgrass
The abundant fields of sweetgrass that once existed in the US have been cleared for agricultural use and development. Many people that use sweetgrass now keep their own patches of it despite its history of being an easily forgeable plant.
Native Americans use sweetgrass for a wide variety of things, including as a bug repellent and for basket weaving. The weaving of baskets started as a functional craft, as the baskets were used for storage, now they are often made for decorative purposes. The baskets range from simple to intricate. The weaving of the baskets can take just hours or, for larger baskets can take days to weeks to finish. I have discovered that storing my years supply of garlic from my garden in a sweetgrass basket keeps my garlic fresh for an entire year!
Native indigenous people often kept sweetgrass in their homes and on their person to protect themselves from bug bites. Anyone that has spent time near a sweetgrass patch can tell you, there are noticeably fewer or even no bugs that bite near the area when compared to other areas where sweetgrass doesn’t grow.
Playing an important role in indigenous cultures, sweetgrass is considered a sacred plant to indigenous peoples and is often used in prayer, and smudging or purifying ceremonies.
It can be dried, then burned by itself or with other herbs and plants. When burning, the sweetgrass keeps its light and sweet vanilla scent, making the air mildly fragrant and alive.
In Europe sweetgrass is also used to flavor distilled drinks like vodka, and can be used as a natural remedy to help fight colds. On the Great Plains the Saskia peoples used sweetgrass to treat the sores on their horses left by wearing saddles. They also carried braided dried sweetgrass to feed their horses in order to increase the horses stamina.
You can have a lot of seriousness and a lot of fun with sweetgrass. It’s the kind of plant that is a lifelong friend …one that you will never tire of!
Adirondack Artisan Sweetgrass perfume is an artful extract of the essence of sweetgrass grown on my farm. The grass is harvested at it peak in the mid- late summer. Grass is thanked, harvested and dried, scents are extracted and stored for inclusion in our beautiful farm-based products in celebration of all things Adirondack! We make sweetgrass perfume and sweetgrass candles. The candles have small clippings of dried sweetgrass embedded on the top which adds natural beauty and a bit of natural magic when the candle is burned.
The perfect gift for someone special!
- Research confirms Native American use of sweetgrass as bug repellent.” Washingtonpost.com, 18 Aug. 2015. Gale Academic OneFile, link-gale-sll.orc.scoolaid.net/apps/doc/A425897136/AONE?u=nysl_nc_sll&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=384a7be2. Accessed 6 July 2021.
- Gordon, Naomi. “Sweetgrass: The Hair of Mother Earth: Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta.” Windspeaker, 05, 2003, pp. 33. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/sweetgrass-hair-mother-earth/docview/345060650/se-2?accountid=4069