Saturday, 26 December 2015

Scented grasses in Norway—identity and uses

J Ethnobiol Ethnomed. 2015; 11: 83.
Published online 2015 Dec 23. doi:  10.1186/s13002-015-0070-y
PMCID: PMC4690224



Some grass species are richer in coumarin and thus more sweetly scented than others. These have been eagerly sought after in parts of Norway, but the tradition has been weakly documented, both in terms of the species collected, their vernacular names, and uses.


Based on literature data and a substantial body of information collected during my own ethnobotanical field work, artefacts and voucher specimens, the grass species are identified, and their uses clarified.


In Norwegian literature, the tradition of collecting and using scented grasses has received little attention, and past authors largely refer it to Anthoxanthum spp. The tradition’s concentration to the Sámi strongholds of northernmost Norway, and most authors’ lacking knowledge of the Sámi language, have contributed to the weak and misleading coverage in previous publications. Coumarin-rich grass species are well known in folk tradition in northernmost Norway, as luktegress (Norwegian, “scent grass”), háissasuoidni (North Sámi, “scent grass”), hajuheinä (Finnish, “scent grass”), or similar terms. They have been (and still are) frequently collected, and used as perfume, for storing with clothes, and a number of other purposes. Despite literature records identifying the species used as Anthoxanthum odoratum coll. (including A. nipponicum), the main source utilized in North Norway is Hierochloë odorata, both ssp. arctica and ssp. odorata. Anthoxanthum nipponicum and Milium effusum are alternative, but infrequently used sources of material, depending on local tradition and availability.


By far the most important grass species hiding behind the “scented grass” tradition in Norway is Hierochloë odorata. Anthoxanthum nipponicum is also used, but much less frequently, and only a single record confirms the use of Milium effusum. Only the foliage of Hierochloë provides suitable material for making traditional braids. The three major ethnic groups in Norway have all utilized scented grasses as perfume and for storing with clothes, but the tradition’s geographical concentration to the far north of Norway (Finnmark and NE Troms), suggests that it has originally mainly been a Sámi tradition, adopted by their neighbours.
Keywords: Anthoxanthum nipponicum, Hierochloë odorata, Milium effusum, Braids, Perfume


Scented or coumarin-rich grasses have found a variety of uses in the northern hemisphere, mainly on account of their sweet and pleasant scent – as perfume for people and dwellings, but also to flavour food and drink, e.g. the well-known żubrówka of Poland, in folk medicine, and, at least among the indigenous tribes of North America, in various religious rituals. It is, however, not my intention to provide a global review of scented grasses – a daunting task even for Europe, given the paucity of accounts available, and certainly so in the major western languages.
In the northernmost part of Norway, sweetly scented grasses constitute a well established part of folk tradition. Grass material intended for perfume and similar purposes has been collected at numerous sites. Despite this, such grasses have received little attention in Norwegian ethnobotanical literature. The first, brief comment was made by Johan Ernst Gunnerus in 1772 ([1]: 117), who noted marigras (“Mary’s grass”) and lugtgrass (“scent-grass”) as Norwegian vernacular names for Holcus odoratus, i.e. Hierochloë odorata (L.) Wahlenb. A more extensive comment is provided by Fredrik Christian Schübeler in 1886 ([2]: 259), who noted their main uses, and depicted a North Sámi grass braid (reproduced in Fig. 1), according to him made of Anthoxanthum odoratum L. coll. Just Qvigstad ([3]: 59, cf. [4]: 305) and Kristian Nissen ([5]: 2–3), commenting on Sámi tradition, suggested that both Anthoxanthum odoratum L. (coll.) and Hierochloë odorata provided source material. Ove Arbo Høeg ([6]: 224) and Olav Johansen [7] identified the species used as Anthoxanthum odoratum, although the former, in his vast collection of Norwegian plant lore, noted that Hierochloë odorata could also be used, at least locally; an example is given from Beitstad in Trøndelag, central Norway. No voucher specimens are cited in any of these works. In his compilation of Sámi folk medicine, Adolf Steen [8] has a brief entry on such grasses. It is listed among cures utilizing starr (the Norwegian term for Carex spp.), probably mislead by the fact that both are regarded as suoinnit (singular suoidni), “graminoids”, in Sámi terminology.