Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Anthoxanthum odoratum - Sweet Grass

Anthoxanthum odoratum or Hierochloe odorata - Sweet Grass, also known as Sweet-scented Vernal Grass, holy grass, vanilla grass or buffalo grass.  The name Anthoxanthum is from the Greek anthos (flower) and xanthos (yellow).   'Odoratum' is latin for 'smell as well'.  The sweet perfume is due to a pleasantly fragrant chemical compound called benzoic acid (benzopyrone).  The scent is particularly strong when dried, –  it smells like fresh hay with a hint of vanilla.

North American tribes burn sweet grass in ceremonies to invite good spirits. The Dakota name for Sweet Grass is Wachanga; Omaha is Pezhezonsta; Winnebago is Manuska and the Pawnee name is Kataru. In the past, the scientific names Torresia odorata and Savastana odorata have been used.

It is a perennial grass with a horizontal, shallow root system, and soft leaf blades growing to two feet in height. Slender stalks with clusters of small, pale green to white flowers. The seed head is bright yellow in colour. The plant is native to Europe and North America.

This plant is important in ritual offerings for peace and healing in Native American ceremonials. Many North American Great Plains tribes believe it was the original plant with which to bless Mother Earth. With cedar, sage and tobacco it is considered to be among the four sacred plants of Native Americans. It was used for cosmetic, aromatic and medicinal purposes.  It was used to create baskets, as thread, for pillow fill, to make mattresses, mats, and in numerous other practical, ceremonial, and decorative uses.  It is also grown as a house plant, due to its sweet a.scent.  It was spread in front of church doorways in Northern Europe to sweeten the air as the congregation entered.  It was also smoked, with report of usefulness in achieving a meditative state.

Used for treating cough, sore throat and vascular disorders. It provides an energizing tonic with circulatory toning and is good for skin.  A tea treated chapped and abrated skin. It was used as an eyewash and shampoo.  Sweet grass blades were chewed to improve endurance during ceremonies involving extensive fasting.

A medicinal tincture made from this grass with spirit of wine (ethanol or grain alcohol), and sniffed deep into the nose, will almost immediately relieve an attack of hay fever.  It is recommended that 3 or 4 drops of the tincture be taken at the same time with water, and repeated if required at intervals of twenty to thirty minutes.

It is grown by scattering seed on tilled ground in the spring through fall, germinating in 4 to 5 days.  It prefers sandy loam and acidic conditions (a low pH).  Strangely the old roots appear to enhance the growth of other grass species, while decreasing the growth of new Anthoxanthum plants.

It grows on poor soils but is not considered a major weed pest. It reproduces by seeds and can be very competitive with other grasses, particularly in the spring. Sweet grass also has the ability to genetically adapt to different environmental conditions. If Sweet Grass receives adequate rainfall or irrigation, it will actively grow from spring to fall.

Harvesting can take place in summer or early fall. Early harvests may be more aromatic, but leaves will be shorter. Complete harvesting when you notice the foliage beginning to go dormant. The plant will lighten in color and will lose some of its scent.  As you are cutting, bundle grass in approximately 1 1/2″ in diameter with rubber bands.

Hang in a dry, ventilated area out of sunlight.  Before braiding, reconstitute bundles by submerging in water only until thoroughly moistened and pliable enough to braid, but no longer than that.  Do not braid when overly wet as they can mold later on.   To finish off, use some strands of grass to replace the rubber bands on both ends.  Allow to dry thoroughly before storing. Store in a box with some air flow. 

If you have ever enjoyed the beautiful scent of sweet grass, you will want to dedicate a large area of your garden (or a couple of large coffee cans if you're container gardening), to this tall, unassuming grass.  I am planning to give this grass about 4'x8' feet of space.  I'll use it for making braids and will feature that process in this journal in the future.

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