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(L.) P. Beauv.
Hierochloe odorata or Anthoxanthum nitens, also known as Sweet grass, Holy grass (UK), Bison grass (Poland), Manna grass, Mary’s grass, Vanilla grass or Unity grass, is an aromatic herb native to northern Eurasia and North America. It is used in herbal medicine and in the production of distilled beverages (e.g., Żubrówka, Wisent). It owes its distinctive sweet scent to the presence of coumarin.
This variety of grass is different from the species commonly known as Buffalo grass (Stenotaphrum secundatum) in Australia.
Hierochloe odorata is a very hardy perennial, able to grow to the Arctic Circle. Its leaves do not have rigid stems, so only grow to about 20 cm (7.9 in) in height, and then the leaves grow outward horizontally to 100 cm (39 in) long or more, by late summer. The base of the leaf, just below the soil surface, is broad and white, without hairs; the underside of the leaf is shiny, without hairs. In the wild, the bases of the leaves are frequently purple-red colored, and this indicates a phosphorus-deficient soil.
There are several strains of sweetgrass — a regular strain that can be harvested once or twice a year, and a naturally occurring polyploid strain, which is much faster growing and can be harvested three to five times a year.
The name Hierochloe odorata is from the Greek, literally "holy fragrant grass". Some authors include Hierochloe in Anthoxanthum; in this case this species is given the epithet nitens to avoid confusion with a different species, Anthoxanthum odoratum, sweet vernal grass.
Propagation is easiest by cutting out plugs from established plants. Grown in sun or partial shade, they do not like drought. Seeds are usually not viable, or if they are, take two to three years to develop a robust root system.
In North America Hierochloe odorata occurs in southern Canada, northern Great Plains/Rocky Mountains and northwest of U.S., and New England. In continental Europe it occurs north from Switzerland. There is only one site in Ireland, and it is recorded in four counties of Scotland.
The plant is harvested by cutting grass in early to late summer at the desired length. Hierochloe odorata harvested after the first frost has little or no scent and is less desirable for basketry. Basketweavers sun-dry cut sweet grass until it is dry and brittle. The brittle form of sweet grass must be soaked in warm water until it becomes pliable. The pliable grass is typically braided into thick threads and then redried for use.
Holy grass was strewn before church doors on saints' days in northern Europe, presumably because of the sweet smell that arose when it was trodden on. It was used in France to flavor candy, tobacco, soft drinks, and perfumes. In Europe, the species Hierochloe alpina is frequently substituted or used interchangeably. In Russia, it was used to flavor tea. It is still used in flavored vodka, the most notable example being Polish Żubrówka.
Native American traditions
Sweet grass was, and is, very widely used by North American indigenous peoples. It is one of the "four sacred medicines", the other three being cedar, sage, and tobacco. In Native American spirituality sweet grass is the sacred hair of Mother Earth; its sweet aroma reminding native people of the gentleness, love and kindness she has for them. Sweetgrass is traditionally braided in three strands representing love, kindness and honesty. As a sacred plant, it is used in peace and healing rituals. Leaves are dried and made into braids and burned as vanilla-scented incense; long leaves of sterile shoots are used by Native Americans in making baskets.
- Natives of the Great Plains believe it was the first plant to cover Mother Earth.
- The Anishinaabe, Cree, Mi'kmaq, and other Algonquian first nations of Canada believe it is a purifier, and burn sweetgrass before all ceremonies. It is a reminder to respect the earth and all things it provides.
- It is also used in ceremonial items by the Blackfoot and Lakota peoples. Used as an Incense by at least the Haudenosaunee, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Dakota, Kiowa, Lakota, Menominee, Montana, Ojibwa, Omaha, Pawnee, Ponca, Sioux, and Winnebago peoples. Used for purification, as oblations to ancestors, for protection of spirits, and keeping out of evil and harm. Used in a variety of ceremonies including peace ceremonies and initiations.
- Used by Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Lakota, Montana, Okanagan-Colville, Omaha, and Thompson for cosmetic and aromatic purposes. Blackfoot and Gros Ventre use leaves soaked in water and used it as a hairwash. Sweet grass tea and smoke were used for coughs and sore throats (Flathead, Blackfoot). Teas used as a wash to treat chapping and windburn, and as an eyewash. Used as body and hair decoration/perfume by Blackfoot, Flathead, and Thompson.
- The Blackfoot chewed grass as a means of extended endurance in ceremonies involving prolonged fasting.
- Iroquois, Kiowa, Malecite, Menominee, and Mi'kmaq people (amongst others) use sweetgrass in basketry (including mats) and crafts.
- Kiowa use fragrant leaves as stuffing for pillows and mattresses.
- Used for sewing at least by Menominee.
- Used as an incense to "keep the bugs away" by Flathead.
- Used by Cheyenne to paint pipes in the Sun Dance and the Sacred Arrow ceremonies.
Sweetgrass has a mellow, almost soporific effect, and for many is a useful aid to entering a meditative state. Coumarin, although not known to possess psychotropic effects, is common to a number of herbs used ritually which have strong anecdotal evidence for at least mild psychotropic properties.
- Hope, Tom, & Gray, Alan, Grasses of the British Isles: BSBI Handbook No. 13, Botanical Society of the British Isles, 2009, p 311. ISBN 978-0-901158-42-0.
- "BSBI List 2007". Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. Archived from the original (xls) on 2015-02-25. Retrieved 2014-10-17.
- Krasińska, M.; Krasińska, Z. (2013). "Food and Use of the Environment". European Bison. Springer Berlin Heidelberg. pp. 157–179.
- Sweetgrass Growing information. Redwood City Seed Company. http://www.ecoseeds.com/sweetgrass.html
- Hierochloe odorata (L.) P. Beauv., USDA PLANTS
- Guédon, Marie-Françoise. Sacred Smudging in North America, Walkabout Press 2000.
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