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Gathering, Curing and Braiding Sweetgrass
I must say right from the beginning that I love Sweetgrass! More often than not, I have a braid or two with me. I love the fresh and sweet smell it has, it reminds me of a particular scent which I encountered in my childhood when I was at my grandmother’s farm, up in the Carpathian Mountains.
From what I know, Sweetgrass can be found easier in the prairies here in Canada but it can also be found in other subalpine areas of the country. I collected some this summer from northern Ontario, up on the French River. This plant grows out in the open, in tall grassy places which are moist or just a little on the dry side. Clearings or edges of forests seem to be a good place to look for it. I am not an expert on finding Sweetgrass and I must say that it is not an easy task.
I used my wolf nose to find it. Knowing its sweet scent and having been told the general area of where it grew, I just smelled the air and I eventually found it. This plant can be anywhere between thirty to sixty centimetres tall. The leafs are like long blades and one way of knowing if a tall looking grass is Sweetgrass or not, is to take a good look at the shade of colour that it has. Sweetgrass has one side of its leaf shiny green, while the other side the green is dull-looking. And yet another way of spotting Sweetgrass, is to look at the base of the stem – it should have a pink colour.
Before starting to collect Sweetgrass, I encourage a prayer, a thank You to Wakan Tanka - the Great Spirit and to Mother Earth for giving us the medicine herbs and the knowledge on how to use them. Also leave an offering of tobacco if possible or anything else that may feel right at that moment. I personally like to talk to the medicine herbs before I take them because everything is connected – All is One. The plants are also our relatives/relations; as the Lakota say: mitakuye oyasin.
When gathering this medicine herb it is important to be smooth with it, as it is quite fragile. To begin with, hold the top of the plant with one hand and run the other hand gently down the stem to the bottom, right where it comes out of the ground. Then, pull it from its base slowly. Sometimes the root will come out too, that is fine. The idea is to collect the whole plant but do keep in mind to not collect all the plants in one area. Take only what is needed.
The uses of Sweetgrass vary. Some people use this plant for its medicinal properties, while others use it for spiritual purposes or simply for making crafts/art. The Ojibwe told me that they also use it in tea form to wash their hair with it, as it gives a wonderful sweet scent. I use Sweetgrass as medicine, for body, mind and spirit.
As medicine, this plant can be made into tea, to treat a cough or sore throat, even fever. I have heard that it can also be used to minimize internal pains and the smoke from it can be inhaled to relieve colds. The general warning about Sweetgrass is that it contains coumarin, which delays and/or prevents blood from clotting.
In terms of spiritual uses, Sweetgrass is one of the four main medicine herbs used by people from the First Nations, here in North America. Usually, it is braided and burned as incense. The smoke from it helps to cleanse an area of negative energy and to lighten the Spirit. Burning Sweetgrass is done as a blessing and for protection. I also like to give away braids of Sweetgrass to people as a sign of gratitude.
After gathering the Sweetgrass, it is important to cure it. This process is not difficult at all. Simply bring a pot of water to boil and turn the heat off, while placing it in the water. It helps if the Sweetgrass is made into a bundle and tied at the bottom, so the blades do not get tangled while in the water. It is important to leave the plant in boiling water just for four to five minutes maximum then, it must be pulled out and put to dry for about four hours or so.
The water from the pot can be used for whatever purpose needed (I drink it) and after roughly four hours the Sweetgrass should be braided, if one intends on having braids. The braiding process has to be done before the plant dries-up, otherwise the blades will break when trying to bend them. That is also a main reason for placing them in hot water: it softens the blades and makes it much easier to braid.
The braids can be made of any size. All that is really necessary is to remember to either make knots or tie each end. I used a few blades of Sweetgrass to wrap-up the end of the braid, where the roots are. At the other thinner end, where the top of the blades are, I simply made a knot. This way the braids do not come apart.
Storing the braids in dark places, away from sunlight will keep them fresh longer – much longer than if they are left in direct light from the Sun. And if the scent has worn out from a braid, placing it briefly in hot water will rejuvenate the sweet smell from it.
As I have mentioned at the beginning of this piece of writing, I am not an expert on Sweetgrass. What I have learned and share with others about this medicine herb is from written knowledge of elders and hands-on experience at an Ojibwe Reserve, Dokis First Nations. I thank the people there for sharing their knowledge and for allowing me to gather Sweetgrass from their Reserve and for always being so incredibly kind.
All the best to everyone!
Note: My photographs, Ontario, Canada, 2012