The Lesson of Sweetgrass

The Lesson of Sweetgrass

SweetgrassYears ago, a Blackfoot woman from the Fort Macleod area in Alberta used to bring sweetgrass braids down to the museum every year, and my folks would purchase them from her, and keep them on hand for tribal customers who requested them.  The last year she came, she gave Bud a package of seeds she had gathered.  He dug a little spot behind my mom’s garden and planted the seeds.  It took quite a while to grow the sweetgrass from seed, but eventually he had a little patch going, and periodically he would carefully harvest it, blade by blade, meticulously sifting through the other grasses and weeds that gradually established themselves in the little patch.  Following the Blackfoot woman’s instructions, he dried and braided it, and then kept the braids mostly to give out to tribal friends.

When I started working at the museum, the general public had started to learn about sweetgrass, and commercial demand for it rose. Folks liked to buy it to gift friends and family back home as a souvenir that seemed authentic and special, and they were intrigued with the sacred qualities that First Peoples on this continent attributed to it. They were surprised to learn that sweetgrass is native to both North America and Northern Eurasia, and its Latin name Hierochloe odorata, means respectively, “holy grass” and “fragrant.” In the past, churches in northern Europe spread this “holy grass” in front of church doors on saints’ days, and it was also used to flavor teas, perfumes, candy, and tobacco. It is still used today to flavor certain vodkas.

The museum purchased sweetgrass from Canadian Native American vendors who harvested wild sweetgrass in the traditional manner when they came through our area, but still we could not keep it in stock.  I began to learn that with the growing commercial demand, overharvesting of sweetgrass was having a negative impact on the wild plants, and Canada was considering restricting commercial harvest.  I found wholesale growers in the US that were starting to grow and sell sweetgrass, but they also could not keep up with the demand, and the cost was very high.  Concerned about sustainability, I suggested to my folks that we start a new patch of sweetgrass for the museum, this time in special beds that would make it easier to keep the grass weed free, maximize growth and make harvesting easier.  I started with six plugs of sweetgrass in a large planter, and grew it on for a season.  By end of summer the whole container was full of tall sweetgrass.  I laid down landscape fabric and created a long, narrow bed that would be easy to work in, and divided the sweetgrass I had grown in the pot into small plugs, and planted them in the bed, which I had prepared with organic mulch and a combination of organic fertilizer and bat guano, plus a little fish bone meal.  While the first bed grew, I made another bed next to the first bed, with the goal of having three beds, so I could rotate crops and renew soil with green manure and organic mulch.  The first bed grew and filled out quickly, and we were able to harvest a good crop off of it the first year, and plant new plugs in the second bed for the next spring.  The grass is beautiful in its own right, lovely to watch as it moves in the wind, and it is a joy to harvest the fragrant blades when they are mature.

Dad and I set up a production line of braiding posts along the porch with binder twine wrapped around the post and a slip noose on the end.  We cut the grass by hand in small batches, and cured it to a certain point in the sun, which can be tricky, too long and the grass crumbles when you try to braid it, and if it is too wet, it may spoil.  We had to check it frequently, because humidity, the time of day, and heat all affect the curing time.  Once it was cured to a certain point, we divided the grass into small bundles which we hung on the slip nooses and braided and tied off with yarn.  Then we finished drying the braids indoors out of the sun so they would keep their color and fragrance.  It was labor intensive, meditative work, and I enjoyed the companionship of my father as we worked.  My braids were (and still are,) large and sloppy, but dad’s braids were precise, evenly braided, with few loose ends sticking out.  No matter how carefully I tried to work, my braids just weren’t as pretty!

It is still an ongoing lesson for me to slow down enough to work methodically and precisely, and my braids are a bit tidier, but they still vary in size and aren’t so pretty.  I am so busy at the museum now that I have to do most of the sweetgrass work on weekends.  Mom keeps the beds watered for me, and dad continues to harvest the sweetgrass into his beautiful braids, even with the pain of rheumatoid arthritis in his hands.

Sometimes looking at the eye-catching rows of sweetgrass moving in a lovely embrace with the breezes that flow through the garden, I feel a little sad that it’s so contained in its bed.  I imagine the sweetgrass hills and wild grasses waving and swirling in the wind, their own sea of fragrance and diversity, and thank this wonderful plant for the tiny rectangle of beauty I am caretaker of, for its desire to burst free of confinement, and for sharing its essence with us.  Perhaps a braid of sweetgrass may remind each of us to slow down and grow our awareness and gratitude for our surroundings, and the inner workings of simply being.


Interested in Sweetgrass and the indigenous use of other plants?  Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Potawatomi Nation member, scientist and professor is an uplifting, rich book for the contemporary reader.




Kimmerer, Robin Wall, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed editions, 2013

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Hierochloe odorata (L.) P. Beauv., USDA PLANTS

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