Sweetgrasses – Anthoxanthum SPP.: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Sacred Grass of Wild Plants

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In Anishinaabemowin, wiingashic/wiingashk syn. bashkodemashkosiw, sweetgrass is one of the four sacred medicines. The other three are asemma (tobacco), bashkodejiibik syn. mashkodewashk (sage), and giizhik (cedar). It’s sacred in the traditional spirituality of various first nations across the Americas. And it’s holy grass in Europe too. Its previous genus, hierochloë is a Greek-Latin combo meaning “holy grass”.

Sweetgrasses (anthoxanthum spp., now merged with hierochloë) like sweet vernal grass are an uncommon sight here along open flat roadsides. In Ontario, you’re most likely to spot either the nonnative European sweet vernal grass (a. odoratum) or the native Northern sweetgrass (a. hirtum).

When you hear about sacred sweetgrass, it’s often anthoxanthum nitens syn. hierochloe odorata AKA “bison grass”. I highly recommend Robin Wall Kimmerers book “Braiding Sweetgrass” if you want to learn more. In Europe, this “holy grass” was used interchangeably with h. alpina. Sadly, iNat has scant sightings of it in Ontario and none around Haliburton area. In some areas it’s endangered. It was probably picked away here.

The four native species in Canada are the aforementioned northern sweetgrass and bison grass (which, I ought mention have also been called by each others common and Latin names in the past and perhaps at times in the present), as well as alpine (a. monticola) and arctic (a. arcticum).

Vernal grasses are widespread around the globe. They all have varying degrees of the vanilla-hay scented compound coumarin. This scent increases when dried. Besides the scent, the shiny smooth underside of the leaf helps with identification.

Anthoxanthum odaoratum; a short-lived perennial sweet grass. 

Edible Uses of Sweetgrasses

While the grains of sweetgrasses are edible, the grass itself is so rich in vanilla-y courmarin it should not be eaten. Courmarin prevents blood from clotting.

The essential oil from the leaves is used for food flavouring. This vanilla-tasting extract is used in some cocktails and distilled beverages, soft drinks, candies, and has even been used to flavour tobacco.

Medicinal Uses of Sweetgrasses

Sweetgrass is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Integumentary
  • Respiratory

Medicinal tags include Anticoagulant, Antispasmodic, and Stimulant. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes in a tea for sore throats and coughs. The smoke may also help relieve a cold.

Alternative Uses of Vanillagrass

Braided Sweetgrass
Braided Sweetgrass

Harvested early to late summer, sweetgrass can be sun or air dried easily. If the grass is too brittle to braid it can be soaked in water to become more pliable. In many first nations it’s a purifier similar to sage and used ceremonially. First nations that braid sweetgrass have varied traditions and meanings as per how they braid it for ceremonial purposes. So, I ought to mention.. mimicking another cultures ceremonies is called “cultural appropriation” these days. I’m not saying you’re forbidden from “smudging” if you don’t have a status card, but that it’s a matter that requires teachings and genuine relationships within this culture.

The grass may also customarily be weaved into mats, baskets, etc. Again, check out Robin Wall Kimmerers book “Braiding Sweetgrass“. Grab a copy and then pass it along eh:)

Worldwide different sweetgrass species are used for perfume; for cosmetics, room fresheners, and aromatherapy. With the added benefit of repelling insects. There are two chemicals found in sweetgrass, the vanilla-y coumarin and another chemical called phytol, which repel some insects including mosquitoes.

The flower clusters look nice in dried floral arrangements and add a sweet scent.

Growing Anthoxanthum SPP.

Propagation is easiest via plugs from established plants, but try to find the native variety. The first batch I bought turned out to be the European. Grow your plugs in sun or partial shade and keep your sweetgrass damp.

The grass is very difficult to start from seed. But sometimes sweetgrasses are found in seed mixes for drought resistant grass. It’s also useful to plant on slopes for stabilization.

There are many holy grasses around the world – what is your cultures?

WARNINGS

A main component prevents blood clotting, which could be dangerous for some people. Too much anticoagulant medicine may be life-threatening.

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored. Herbalists do not have an official certification yet, but that may be in the works.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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REFERENCES

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthoxanthum

Plants of Power: Native American Ceremony and the Use of Sacred Plants

Mi’kmaq Medicines (2nd edition): Remedies and Recollections

Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants

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