Sweetgrass holds fragrance but loses ground without help
Preserving By Propagation
President Biden proclaimed today as the second national celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day and a lot of people are wondering just how to celebrate. There are a lot of good ideas floating around, from attending readings by Tribal writers and poets, shows of local Native artists’ work, and/or performances of music by Native composers. If you can’t find anything local, there are plenty of websites that offer similar experiences, and many libraries now offer both books and music recordings by Native artists too, but for gardeners, I’m thinking about something a bit different.
In Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful book, Braiding Sweetgrass, she talks about the mystery of why wild sweetgrass thrives where it is regularly harvested and falters where nobody is gathering it anymore. She quotes an elder speaking about gathering sweetgrass, saying, “If we use a plant respectfully, it will stay with us and flourish. If we ignore it, it will go away.” If you don’t give it respect, it will leave us.”
Vanishing Or Replenishing
A few years ago, several elders asked Dr. Kimmerer to look into that mystery; what is making sweetgrass disappear from places where it used to be abundant? There are two main traditional ways to harvest sweetgrass; by pulling up or carefully pinching off half of established clumps. Seeing long established sweetgrass stands dwindle, the gatherers worried that perhaps the way it was being gathered was somehow beginning to harm the plants. As a botanist, Dr. Kimmerer was able to develop scientific ways to investigate the problem and found a graduate student willing to test them out.
Despite extensive pushback from established (male, white) scientists, Dr. Kimmerer and her student set up the study literally in the field. Along the way, the graduate student admitted that she recognized that although her scientific methods were sound, she didn’t have the relationship with the plants that Native harvesters do. Without that relationship, might something important be missing? Though she was unable to replicate that deep relationship, she found herself fall unscientifically in love with the plants as she worked closely with them, day after day. After several years of work (including while very pregnant), the graduate student was able to show that no matter which gathering method was used, sweetgrass stands that were being harvested regularly were clearly doing better than nearby stands that were not touched.
Love It Or Lose It?
It turned out that, like many range grasses, sweetgrass responds positively to harvesting, as long as it isn’t overdone. As sweetgrass has become less frequently harvested, it also turns out that it has become to a degree a domesticated plant that needs human help to thrive. Range animals don’t graze on it, so unless humans help by respectfully harvesting it, sweetgrass starts to die out, even in areas where it has grown abundantly for hundreds or even thousands of years. It also turns out that there are still many stands of sweetgrass throughout in the Pacific Northwest. Around here, true sweetgrass, Hierochloe odorata (which means fragrant holy grass), is most often found in moist meadows and slopes and along stream banks and rivers. It is not to be confused with an invasive reed sweetgrass, Glyceria maxima, which can also be found in similar places but is aggressive and weedy looking, unlike the supple, shiny stems of true sweetgrass.
There are a few places to buy sweetgrass plants, but if you like to hike, another good way to grow your own is to collect a few ripe seeds from an established patch. They must be sown quickly or they won’t germinate, but if they are really ripe, they’ll sprout in a week or so. The seeds aren’t viable until they turn brown, no longer green, and the top of the stem should also be brown (though the lower stem often stays green longer). Keep a pot of soil next to your plant so you can plant the seeds as soon as they ripen, barely covering them with fine soil. Once the first shoots appear, wait until they’re a few inches high before potting them up in small clumps. If you get a good crop going, consider gifting some plants to local Tribal weavers and/or planting them where sweetgrass has become less flourishing. Harvest them carefully, never taking more than half and letting plants rest a year before harvesting again. Donate the harvest to local Traibes and/or braid your own for gifts.
Looking for a lasting way to celebrate? Listen to Calina Lawrence singing her amazing song, Lushootseed Is Alive (Lushootseed is the native language of the Suquamish people that’s being taught again in schools and homes). It’s so beautiful it makes me smile and cry at the same time. If for some reason the link doesn’t work, look for YouTube Calina Lawrence Lushootseed and spend a riveting 3 minutes listening. Calina is an extremely talented person, a member of the Suquamish Tribe, a musician, an advocate for foster kids, an actress, and much more.
Also, here’s an excellent book for the family to read together and discuss, not just today but over time, perhaps a chapter a month. There’s an adult version too but this one is better for multigenerational reading.
this is absolutely brilliant! I can’t think of a better way to celebrate our First Nation people.
Hi, Ann. As a basketweaver and basketweaving class coordinator for BARN, I very much enjoyed your blog post. Another species of “sweetgrass” is used by both Coast Salish weavers and locals weavers alike is Schoenplectus pungens Palla. Melinda West, an accomplished local weaver and teacher of the use of local and sustainable weaving materials, has a page dedicated on her website to this wonderful material: https://www.melindawest.com/northwest-sweet-grass-basket-grass-my-favorite-grass/ Do you know if Hierochloe odorata and Schoenplectus pungens are related? Thank you!
Hi Cyndy, Hierochloe odorata is in the Poa group of grasses, while Schoenplectus is a sedge, so no, they aren’t related, but it’s interesting to see that several grasses have enough natural fragrance to be called ‘sweet grass’ throughout their range.
The sweetgrass that Dr. Kimmerer writes about is Hierochloe odorata, native to North America and Eurasia. In Washington State, most colonies are found East of the mountains, but there are (or were) colonies in parts of western Washington as well, mostly in marshy meadows. It’s also possible to grow it in large containers and in garden settings as well.