The Sweetness of Sweetgrass

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Sweetgrass bound for a Tribal prairie restoration

Taking Care

As temperatures are climbing towards normal, I’m planting out seedlings and starts and already noticing signs of drought and weather whiplash in both plants and soil. Given the NOAA prediction of another hot, dry summer, it’s definitely going to be a season when taking care of plants will be more important than ever. In calmer years, it was a delight to pay close attention to my dear plants, noting their changes like a doting mother studying the progress of beloved children. Every change from sprout to shoot, from bud to blossom, from bee fodder to seed pod, felt like a marvelous pageant, offering a totally enthralling array of life stages. In years when family turmoil felt overwhelming, I found relief in the sturdy resilience of perennials, which often throve or at least survived without needing a lot of attention. As time went on and life became more complicated, I came to deeply appreciate plants that made benign neglect rewarding.

Annuals, on the other hand, are far less forgiving, because they can’t afford to be; with just one shot at success, any check in their development, whether from wild weather or non-benign neglect, can be fatal. If they don’t die outright, they may linger on, frail and dwindling, like the Victorian women who took to their beds and turned their faces to the wall yet lingered, unable to move on. Interestingly, it’s actually quite hard to die of disappointment when the body strongly wants to live. Plants also want to live and do their best with what they have, but it’s a rugged plant indeed (probably a weed or at least oregano) that can truly thrive under adverse conditions. Yes, there are lovely desert and plains plants that enjoy hot, dry spots but few of them can tolerate our western winters (though that may be changing). In any case, I’m going to be observing and taking notes on plant performances this year so I can make more informed decisions next time around.

The Fragrance of Sweetgrass

One decision that definitely paid off was to try more prairie plants, which are more used to seasonal temperature extremes than many favorite ornamentals. Among the happiest has been sweetgrass, Heirochloe odorata. Sometimes called vanilla grass for its lovely fragrance, this sturdy prairie dweller has been used for millennia in braids, baskets and smudges said to attract beneficent spirits. It certainly raises my spirits as whenever I handle it, that gentle aroma makes me smile. I’ve been handling it a lot lately as I’v learned that it likes to be divided and may dwindle if left alone too long. Robin Wall Kimmerer says that sweetgrass has become domesticated, much like corn and beans, and without human help, it isn’t able to survive long in the wild. Last year I planted ten little starts and thanks to a kind garden neighbor who watered when I was unable, they throve and spread into a large happy tangle of roots and shoots. I planned to offer some sweetgrass starts to neighboring Tribal basketmakers and weavers and artisans but wasn’t able to connect with them so just kept potting up the wandering shoots anyway as we made room in the pea patch bed for kale and peas and garlic.

Recently I discovered a new destination for them when I visited the brand new library/museum of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. This is a gorgeous, stunning, hand built building, beautifully combining exceptional design, craftsmanship and artistry. The collection is fantastic and beautifully displayed, the workmanship is extraordinary, and every detail is amazing: even the rug is a topographic map of the Jamestown S’Klallam territory. After a fascinating tour, hearing the history and meaning of many spectacular Tribal totems, we spent some time in the art gallery, where I learned that the Tribe is working on restoring part of the native prairie. Over 97% of the native prairie has been lost to development, and bringing back this invaluable habitat is a major project for the Tribe. Since sweetgrass used to be common in such places, my offer of sweetgrass starts was accepted with excitement and enthusiasm. I came home determined to pot up as many more start as possible, which turns out to be good, since that very day I learned that our neighboring Tribe is also interested in having as many starts as I can offer. Fortunately this willing plant is still spreading happily and I’m hoping to have 100 starts to share by this fall. Onward, right?
Some of the remarkable Jamestown S’Klallam totems


This entry was posted in Annual Color, Climate Change, Easy Care Perennials, Garden Design, Garden Prep, Health & Wellbeing, Plant Diversity, Plant Partnerships, Planting & Transplanting, Seedling Swaps, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Sweetness of Sweetgrass

  1. Linda Gilliland says:

    Where is this located? Where did you purchase/obtain your sweetgrass seed/starts?

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Hi Linda, my garden is on Bainbridge Island in the maritime Pacific Northwest (near Seattle). I got the sweetgrass starts from Prairie Nursery, owned by my old friend Neil Diboll.

  2. Nancy Loizeaux says:

    Thank you! I know of sweetgrass but have never experienced it. Very exciting that your starts are going to the tribes.

  3. Tamma Farra says:

    The totems look magnificent and I think a day trip will be in future to visit the museum.
    I used to go north of Missoula and found sweet grass there. It really does have a wonderful smell. Thanks for the article.

  4. This is very creative and inspring, Ann!

  5. katy gilmore says:

    Always love your writing – this a particular favorite! Thank you Ann!

  6. Diane says:

    Hi Ann,
    I’m wondering where the museum you visited is located? Looks like a place it would like to visit.
    Thank you,

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Diane, the library/museum is on the Jamestown S’Klallam reservation just outside of Sequim and well worth a visit! Call ahead to get a guided tour of the many totems!

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