Sweet grass, hierochloe odorata, is very rare in California. Specimens have been collected in the rugged north end of the state, and perhaps from valleys in the Sierra Nevada and the Santa Cruz Mountains as well. Native sweet grass has definitely been found in Del Norte, Siskiyou, and Shasta counties.
These are wild lands. Steep mountains are cut by twisting canyons, and seeps and swamps slowly evolve to meadows as washed-down earth is caught by roots and fills in watercourses. Meadows then become forest in due time, if the procress of forestation is not delayed by wild fire. Sweet grass grows in seeps and mountain meadows, along rivers and at the edges of sloughs.
Specifically, it has been found in small remote stands near Lassen Peak, in Seven Lakes Basin, and at Panther Rock. Less certainly, sweet grass may grow in some valleys of the Sierra Nevadas and in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It is hard to collect in California and nearly impossible to propagate from seed. Yet it is easy to obtain from several plant companies.
Though now rare and endangered in California, sweet grass is common throughout the world. In Europe, it is called holy grass, because it was strewn around the doors of churches and beneath processions on Saints Days. The scientific name hierochloe odorata can be translated as fragrant holy grass. In the new world, it was called bison grass or buffalo grass. Some of the Plains Indians believed that it was the first covering that mother earth wore.
It is also called manna grass and Mary’s grass, names that reflect Christian reverence for it. The Gaelic name was Feur Moire. Another English name is vanilla grass, an attempt to describe its persistent scent, which resembles new-mown hay.
People still weave it into baskets and braids, and burn it as incense in cleansing rituals. In Poland and surrounding countries, some people drink Zubrowka, a vodka distilled from rye and flavored with sweet grass. It has been made in Poland at least since the 16th century. The usual domestic product is not exported to the United States, because sweet grass contains coumarin.
Coumarin is a poison. It impairs blood clotting and may harm the liver if ingested in quantity. The Zubrowka that is imported into the United States is quite safe. Though each bottle may contain a blade of sweet grass, it is only a decoration, and the beverage itself is coumarin-free.
Fragrant sweet grass in California is rare and hard to find. It is grown commercially, though, so there is no need to disturb the remaining wild stands