Sweetgrass and the Scent of Rain
When people talk to me about the scents they love, the ones they wish they could carry with them like talismans to ward off the evils of the world, they always talk about rain: Fat drops of summer rain falling on a hot city sidewalk. Thin, gray autumn rain stirring up the scent of fallen leaves. Foggy winter rains, smelling of salt and pine. Spring rains, smelling of cold mud, and then, a few weeks later, smelling of all the new wet green everywhere. Forest rain. Jungle rain. Rain on tomato vines at four in the afternoon…
I can imagine all of these rains and more as I write about them, but my own rain scent, the one that I daydream about without realizing it, is the scent of summer rain on tall blonde grass–and then the scent of the wet grass after the rain, when the sun comes out. I’ve never had any hope of finding that scent in a bottle. And then a couple of weeks ago I did just that.
But before I tell you more, I have to tell you about Hierochloe odorata, the fragrant grass known as sweetgrass or holy grass. It is not the tall blonde grass of my childhood, but it might be a cousin. I may even have smelled it without knowing it, since it normally grows mixed in to other stands of grass. Idaho is far enough north for it–in the United States it grows as far South as North Carolina, though it is rare there. Everywhere it grows it is prized.
The thing that makes sweetgrass sweet is coumarin, a naturally occurring aromachemical that in its pure form has a scent somewhere between vanilla and warm hay. As the grass dries, the scent of coumarin becomes more pronounced. This makes sweetgrass ideal for weaving into fragrant baskets or braids used to line drawers and closets. In Poland, it lends its flavor to vodka.* In North America many Native American tribes use its sweet smoke for ceremonies of blessing and purification.
I first smelled sweetgrass in its braid-and-smoke form when a friend brought some as a gift to bless my first apartment. I enjoyed the scent of the smoke, but what I truly loved was the braid itself, which smelled wonderfully of wet, sweet hay. I kept it until it was dry and brittle. Finally, it disintegrated. So when I spied Sweet grass hydrosol on the Arlys Naturals site I ordered some without even reading the site’s description.
If I had, I might have been prepared for the scent of “a fresh spring rain on the prairie,” or as I like to think of it, the scent of the high desert after rain, with just a touch of the scent of a snowmelt creek running along in the deep shadow of a mountain. Or maybe just the memory of that scent, and the sound of the creek.
The scent doesn’t last long in the air–only about as long as the scent of rain itself lasts once the sun comes out. But you could spray your linens or your hair if you wanted it to last longer. Pillowcases might be especially nice. I admit I haven’t tried it. I find the scent so necessary but so haunting that I’m afraid to sleep with it yet. Maybe sometime this summer, when the temperatures have been in the triple digits for weeks on end and our chances of rain have dwindled to a rumor.
Notes: If you’d like to learn more about the science of what makes rain smell wonderful, you can read this very interesting article in the Smithsonian. You can learn more about sweetgrass here, and order some braids here. The painting is Vincent Van Gogh’s, Rain in a Wheat Field. It is one in a series of paintings of the same view seen from the window of the asylum where he was staying. You can read the whole story here.
*I’ve never tasted sweetgrass infused vodka, but thanks to Julianne Zaleta, the magician who runs the Herbal Alchemy Apothecary, I’ve tasted vodka infused with sweet woodruff, which is also rich in natural coumarin. (Sweet woodruff has traditionally been used to make May Wine.) When I put a dab of the vodka on my tongue the scent rose up from my palate and expanded into my head until I felt like I was standing in the middle of a sunny field. It tasted like something fairies would use in their cocktails.