Sweet grass

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Sweet Grass (inter alia)
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Hierochloe odorata (USDA).jpg
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Division: Magnoliophyta
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Class: Liliopsida
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Order: Poales
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Family: Poaceae
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Genus: Hierochloe
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Species: H. odorata
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Binomial name
Hierochloe odorata
(L.) P. Beauv.
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Type Species

Sweet grass (Hierochloe odorata), also known as Sweetgrass, Holy grass, buffalo grass, Vanilla grass, Manna grass, Seneca grass, Mary's grass, Zebrovka, or Bison grass, is an aromatic herb which grows in northern Eurasia and North America. It is used in herbal medicine and manufacture of alcoholic beverages (see Żubrówka). It owes its specific aroma to the presence of coumarin.

Habit: Very hardy native perennial. Native to North America as well as Europe. Grows to about 60 cm in height, leaves grow 60 cm long by late summer. Base of leaves, just below soil surface is broad and white, without hairs, underside of leaves are shiny, no hairs

Propagation: Easiest by cutting out plugs from established plants. Grown in sun or partial shade, they do not like drought.

Distribution: Northern America: Canada; New England States. Asia-Temperate: Europe: from Switzerland north. Only one site in Ireland, and four counties in Scotland; making it very rare in the British Isles.

Harvesting: Cut grass in early to late summer at the desired length, hang to dry in sun for a few days. To make braids, simply place the dried sweetgrass in warm water for a few minutes, braid and hang out of the sun to dry. Sweetgrass harvested after the first frost has little or no scent.



European traditions

A bottle of Polish-made vodka flavored with buffalo grass
Sweet grass - Photographed in British Columbia, Canada 2007

Sweet 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. Widely used in neo-pagan practice (syncretized from North American indigenous practice). In Europe, the species H. 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.

American Indian traditions

Sweet grass was, and is, very widely used by North American indigenous peoples. 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. Incense used by at least the 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 & 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 Micmac 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.


Guédon, Marie-Françoise. Sacred Smudging in North America, Walkabout Press 2000.

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