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.
04/11/2013 at 10:57 pm
Sweetgrass is one of those scents that has haunted me, in a good way, all my life. For me it’s the smell of the Penobscot sewing baskets that my grandmother, all my aunts, and my mother used to store their needles and thread. I loved the peace and calm of their concentration as they would sew quilts, clothing and sometimes even dolls’ clothes for my dolls. Sweetgrass is a smell that always transports me to a very good place.
I was delighted to discover that sweetgrass is a scent that Michel Roudnitska has used to create a perfume in collaboration with a Canadian Native American healer called Blue Eagle for the company Invocations’ Native Essences. The perfume is called Miwah, the diminutive of Miwahïmoon, an Algonquian word which means “something natural that brings well-being and energy”. It seems that your blog does not allow the posting of URLs, but Miwah can be found easily enough through Google. It’s quite reasonably priced.
04/12/2013 at 11:06 am
I was about to post the same thing… I’ve been wanting to try Miwah myself.
04/12/2013 at 1:34 pm
Wow, I had no idea! I’m interested in pretty much anything Michel Roudnitska does, so will definitely look this up, thanks. Maybe a future post. (And thanks for the note about not being able to post url’s–I will look into that, too.)
04/12/2013 at 9:37 am
Bison Grass Vodka! I’ve tried it! My friend Rebecca, who had spent some time in Russia, had a bottle. Vodka shots and pickles, that was the thing. It does taste sweet.
I maintain that El Paso Texas has the definitive smell when it rains. They say it’s the mesquite and/or the creosote. It’s a more powerful smell there than anywhere else I’ve been.
04/12/2013 at 1:37 pm
Oh that’s interesting–another name for the grass. Makes sense. I wonder what they call it in Polish? (Did they have Bison in Poland? I don’t think they did, but I learn something new every day.)
Totally believe you about El Paso. I wonder how it compares to Santa Fe, which has much the same landscape, but with more people from L.A?
04/12/2013 at 2:18 pm
I can just hear my hubby and daughters: “You are buying wine and vodka, so you know what the rain smells like in Texas and Russia?!”
And then, they will want a taste of the Fairy Cocktail; must get a working recipe prepared for the next rain shower.
Alyssa, you are a Dream Weaver : )
04/12/2013 at 2:21 pm
Hee, hee! I think the most important ingredient is the sweetgrass itself (or sweet woodruff). Making infused vodka is not difficult and you can do it with almost any aromatic. Online recipes abound. Cheers! 🙂
04/12/2013 at 2:23 pm
And–oh!–it just occurred to me. You could buy the hydrosol and just spray some in the glass before pouring and I bet it would have a similar effect.
04/12/2013 at 2:24 pm
And now I’m thinking I need to road-test that for you all…
04/12/2013 at 9:00 pm
We grow sweet woodruff (easy to grow in California) and make may wine.
The plant flowers about now and we put about a dozen sprigs in a bottle of white wine e.g. reisling, recork and leave in refrigerator overnite. Ready to drink the next day. The woodruff gives a vanilla like flavor to the wine. Very nice.
04/13/2013 at 11:30 am
How lovely! I clearly need to plant some Sweet Woodruff even though I doubt it will.survive the heat. Maybe we can have pir May Wine in January.