Burned to promote happiness, open heartedness and harmony, sweetgrass is a sacred plant like sage that has long been used in Native American smudging ceremonies.
Yet unlike sage, which is a shrub, sweetgrass is actually a type of grass. Traditionally, sage has been used to ward off evil spirits and cleanse a space, person or object. But sweetgrass—also called holy grass, vanilla grass, bison grass or buffalo grass—essentially does the opposite; because the grass normally bends, not breaks, when walked upon in the wild, it’s believed to symbolize kindness. One Native American healer, Whitehorse Woman, puts it this way: “Smudging is a two-step process for me. I use sage to remove unwanted energy, and sweetgrass to invite wanted energy.” In other words, sage clears negativity and sweetgrass brings positivity.
To many noses, sweetgrass has a distinct, vanilla-like scent, although to others, the aroma is more like that of a freshly mown lawn or a bale of freshly cut hay. The leaves of the sweetgrass plant are sturdy but very fine, almost hair-like, which is why it’s often braided. This could be why Native Americans also refer to sacred sweetgrass as “the hair of Mother Earth.”
8 Traditional and Modern Uses for Sweetgrass
1. In smudging ceremonies.
When burned, sweetgrass doesn’t produce a dangerous flame; braided sweetgrass simply smolders as you wave or gently fan the smoke around the room. Taking inspiration from the traditions of indigenous people, smudging with sweetgrass is great for a releasing ritual, as once you release what no longer serves you, it will help to invite positive energies into your life. (Explore our new Ritual Box for Surrendering and Releasing.)
“In the process of letting go, you will lose many things from the past, but you will find yourself.” —Deepak Chopra
2. For protection.
When braided and worn around the neck or hung in the home, sweetgrass is said to offer protection from negative forces. The three strands of the braid represent love, peace and harmony, or mind, body and spirit.
3. To make baskets.
For centuries, Native Americans have used sweetgrass for basket weaving. Amazingly, the baskets apparently retain their sweet smell for years.
4. To reduce swelling.
Sweetgrass contains coumarin, which has blood-thinning properties, making it helpful in reducing edema, or swelling. However, coumarin in larger doses can be carcinogenic, so consult with a doctor or herbalist if you’re interested in using it medicinally.
5. As a flavoring.
Mainly in Europe, sweetgrass is used to flavor candies, tobacco and alcoholic beverages. Zubrowka, a popular vodka made in Poland, is flavored with sweetgrass, although the label on the bottle refers to it as bison grass.
6. To sleep on.
Sweetgrass has been used by Native Americans as a stuffing for pillows and mattresses. The sweetgrass retains its scent, which is said to have meditative properties—perfect for getting a restorative night of sleep.
7. To drink.
Native Americans (and modern herbalists) often brew sweetgrass tea and use it to soothe ailments like coughs, sore throats and skin chafing (like chapped lips).
8. To smell better.
Chippewa (Ojibwa) young men used sweetgrass as a type of cologne, wearing two braids around their necks, hanging down the back like hair. The Thompson Indians made a sweetgrass infusion that they used to cleanse and perfume their bodies and hair.