Growing Sweet Grass and Sage By
Incense. Right now it’s riding a crest of popularity.
Numerous plant materials have been used as incense
because of their fragrances, but two native plants stand
out: sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) and white sage (Salvia
Richo Cech of Horizon Herbs in Williams, Ore., describes the
smell of sweetgrass as “vanillalike or new-mown haylike,”
and attributes the scent to the plant’s coumarin content.
White sage, he says, is penetrating, spicy, camphoraceous —
and slightly skunky.
As an incense, white sage is burned to purify people and
places, and its use sometimes is accompanied by prayer.
Loose leaves often are burned, and a traditional ritual
method for smudging the body calls for spreading the smoke
by “brushing” it with a feather or bird wing. An alternative
is to bind several stems together into a smudge stick.
Either way, the leaves smolder, rather than burn with an
Due to growing demand, commercial development in both
plants’ native habitats and improper management of remaining
wild stands, white sage and sweetgrass are both in trouble.
“The biggest stands of wild sweetgrass are in Canada where
most of the commercial dried braids come from, but
wildcrafting is hurting them,” says Craig Dremann, owner of
Redwood City Seeds in Redwood City, Calif. “Dried sweetgrass
leaves contain very important soil nutrients. The phosphorus
and other minerals removed with the harvested leaves are not
being replenished, and, I believe, the subsequent diminished
soil fertility is causing stands to decline.”
The situation for white sage is bad, too. The plant is
native to just a small strip of coastal Southern California,
where development is intense. The sustainability of wild
populations of white sage may be adversely affected by
development, overharvesting and unfavorable weather,
although the plant is a tough contender in drylands and in
rough, unsettled country.
Fortunately, both sweetgrass and white sage can be easily
grown at home, and Cech says, in the garden each contributes
a beautiful and cleansing presence. By growing them, you can
provide for your own incense needs and perhaps have enough
to sell. A thriving market exists for sweetgrass braids and
white sage smudge sticks and dried leaves. Local farmer’s
markets and the Internet are primary outlets; they also sell
well in bookstores, galleries, jewelry stores and souvenir
Craig Dremann/Redwood City Seed Co.
Richo Cech/Horizon Herbs
Top: Cold-hardy sweetgrass prefers rich, moist, slightly
sandy soil and full sun. Above: Heat-loving white sage likes
a dry, sunny spot with excellent drainage.
Sweetgrass grows wild in the northern regions of North
America and Europe. Because most sweetgrass seed is
infertile, stands are started from root plugs, available
from various suppliers.
Cech, who also is the author of Making Plant Medicine and
Growing At-Risk Medicinal Herbs, says, “Actually, fertile
seed is sometimes available, but empty seedcoats are common
and, even when germplasm is present, it is loaded with
germination inhibiting compounds.” So the plant is more
easily grown using other methods.
Plugs should be planted in potting soil using shallow, wide
plastic pots, and kept in the shade for a couple of weeks to
develop new roots, according to both Dremann and Cech. Young
plants can be grown in the pots until they fill out; then
they should be transplanted into the garden, spaced about a
foot apart. Do not use clay or peat pots; in both
containers, the roots can dry out too quickly.
Sweetgrass prefers rich, moist, slightly sandy soil and full
sun. It’s important to keep it constantly moist, but not
soggy. Dremann says the plant is a heavy feeder, so
fertilize it at least twice during the growing season with
blood meal and bone meal for best results.
There are two types of stems: stout ones, which flower from
June to August, and lanky, non-flowering stems.
Traditionally, both are harvested for braids by pulling them
out of the base sheath: Support the base of the plant with
one hand while pulling the longer blades out of the basal
sheath. This way the roots are undisturbed, which allows the
plant to regrow, and leaves the blades at maximum length for
Lay out the cut stems in the sun to dry in batches no more
than an inch thick. Periodically, turn the stems so they dry
evenly, and when they’re almost dry, braid them. The braids
add a rich vanilla aroma to their surroundings, and
generally are kept as is, rather than being burned.
Also known as Grandfather sage and bee sage, white sage is
considered a sacred plant by many Native American tribes. It
burns with a penetrating, slightly skunky pungency, Cech
A perennial that grows 2 to 5 feet high, white sage has
gray-green young leaves that turn a dramatic white as they
mature. The flowers, which bloom during the summer, are
silvery white with a lavender tinge. The seed has a natural
low germination rate — about 15 percent — so if you decide
to try seed, sow it in very sandy soil or a commercial
cactus mix, and water daily; average germination time is 14
White sage is cold-hardy only as far north as Zone 8b (15
degrees); outside of Southern California, Arizona and New
Mexico, it should be cultivated as an annual or brought
indoors for the winter. Repot seedlings into ceramic pots,
using the same cactus/soil mix, and move them to the garden,
or transplant them, about 2 feet apart, to a dry, sunny
area. Good drainage is essential; most sages do not like wet
feet and white sage won’t tolerate it at all.