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Conserving the sweetgrass tradition

Conservation Showcase

Chuckie Green, Natural Resources Director for the Mashpee Wampanoag TribeTo the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe of southeastern Massachusetts, sweetgrass is more than an ordinary-looking grass with a nice aroma. It’s an important ceremonial and medicinal plant. In recent years, however, the tribe has been losing local access to this native Cape Cod plant.

“We burn it for purification ceremonies to cleanse us of all of our bad thoughts, so when we get ready to go into a ceremony we're clean,” said George Chuckie Green, Director of Natural Resources for the tribe.

Kitty Hendricks-Miller, the tribe’s Indian Education Program Coordinator, added that the Wampanoag people use sweetgrass for gifting. “We'll give it to tribal people that are visiting or traveling. We'll give them a gift of a braid which they can, in turn, use in their own ceremonies,” said Hendricks-Miller.

“It was identified that sweetgrass was culturally important to the tribe and that it was diminishing throughout the Cape in areas that, for generations, the elders could go and acquire it. It's gone,” said Mia Halter, District Conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service field office in West Yarmouth, Mass.

Sweetgrass likes to grow above a wetland and below an upland. “With sea level rise moving a lot faster than people had anticipated, it's eliminated that area between the two,” said Green.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe teamed up with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s local field office and the agency’s Plant Materials Center in Cape May, New Jersey on a project to bring sweetgrass back by propagating it on the tribe's 39-acre farm in Mashpee, Mass.

“The Cape May Plant Materials Center is one of 25 centers nationwide,” explained Scott Snell of the Cape May Plant Materials Center. “The mission of the Plant Materials Program is to serve field office staff. We do that by performing plant trials and doing plant development, developing plant releases to solve conservation problems.”

Snell and Chris Miller, also of the Plant Materials Center, worked with the tribe to visit sites where these indigenous plants used to be more plentiful and collected seeds. They did some seed stratification – a process that simulates natural conditions to break dormancy and encourage germination – and plant propagation. They also held a training session for tribal members at the center.

Now, the tribe is raising sweetgrass in a raised bed on the farm. “The first plants did really well. We've had our first harvest last year,” said Green, adding that they hope to triple the size of the area this year.

“It's going to take some work. It will take about five years of transplanting and spreading to get to a point where we're really in a good position to take plants out and put them into the environment,” explained Green.

“It looks like a normal grass except when it's mature it has a flower. It's real difficult to spot in the wild except for its aroma,” said Green.

“Sweetgrass is a worldwide thing,” said Green. “It grows everywhere in the world, but nobody can really tell where it originally came from. All the genera are so close that there's nothing that can pin it down to one spot. It's been around for a long time.”