Culturally and Economically Important Nontimber Forest Products of Northern Maine
Sweetgrass, Hierochloe odorata
Other names: Herbe sainte (French), welimahaskil (Maliseet), kjimskiku (Mi’kmaq)
Sweetgrass is considered sacred by Native Americans from Maine and other parts of the United States and Canada. Several Mi’kmaq and Maliseet gatherers we spoke with expressed concern about the loss of sweetgrass due to poor harvesting techniques, soil erosion and destruction of habitat caused by development.
Physical Description: Sweetgrass is a perennial grass that forms thick rhizomatous mats. Stems grow up to 3 feet high, and are usually purple at the base. The grass has a sweet, pleasant smell. Flowers are formed in a branched, tapering cluster called a panicle.
Habitat: Sweetgrass is a wetland plant found in moist meadows, along riverbanks, and near the ocean. Some people prefer the quality of sweetgrass that grows near the ocean:
"There are areas here where you can harvest the sweetgrass. But the best places to get them are near the ocean, because they grow longer and they have a sweeter smell."
Uses: Sweetgrass is used ceremonially, and is smoked or burned as a purifying smudge. Sweetgrass is also used for basketry, either by itself or combined with brown ash splints.
Preparation: Sweetgrass is often braided and dried before use.
When to harvest: Late July through September, after the plant has gone to seed. One interviewee recommends harvesting in the morning, when it is easier to tell the difference between sweetgrass and other grasses:
"The best time to pick it is in the morning. When the sun is coming up, you can see the difference. It doesn’t grow all by itself, it grows with other weeds and other grasses that look similar to the sweetgrass. But if you go when the sun is coming up in the eastern direction, and you just kind of brush the grass back with your hand, you can see that it glows. The sweetgrass glows. It almost looks like a neon green."
Tips for Sustainable Harvesting/Management: We learned several important considerations from interviewees about sustainably harvesting sweetgrass. First, treat the plants with respect. People we spoke with all offer tobacco before harvesting sweetgrass, as a way to honor the plant’s life and give back something to the earth. Second, only harvest sweetgrass after it has gone to seed, in order to promote the growth of new plants. Third, do not pull up sweetgrass. Although this technique is sometimes used to make room for more sweetgrass to grow, if done improperly it will quickly deplete a population. Instead of uprooting an entire plant, simply snip sweetgrass stems close to the ground. This will allow plants to grow again the following year.
Photo by Krzysztof Ziarnek. Illustration from Clark & James, "Farm Weeds", 1906.
Last Modified: 05/24/2010