Sweetgrass Hydrosol
Answered by: Richard Alan Miller
Question from: Michelle
Posted on: January 21, 2011

My husband and I are thinking about growing sweetgrass to make sweetgrass hydrosol. We have a farm on Manitoulin island and there is a small stream that periodically flows in front of our house down to the nearby river. I was wondering, since I’ve heard that sweetgrass enjoys having its feet wet, whether this might be a good place to grow it. The soil we have is sandy loam. I was also wondering how large an area I would need to plant in order to make a large batch of hydrosol. If I planted plants 6-8" apart how many years it would take for them to fill the area in?

Manitoulin Island is in Ontario, Canada. Your weather and rainfall are certainly in the ball game for this kind of crop, as it began its history in Sweetgrass, Montana. Traditional uses include smudge sticks and incenses, so a hydrosol is also doable, from a marketing point of view.

Sweetgrass is commonly used by Native Americans. It scent is thought to cleanse a room, ground it, and make the space sacred. Unlike smudge burned in bundles, Sweetgrass is generally braided into sections that are approximately 12" in length. While used extensively in aromatherapy, the total volumes sold are limited, and mostly to this niche market.

Most begin Sweetgrass cultivation in raised beds, in their first attempts to weed it from other grass infestations. Also, it is usually braided while growing in rows, so the raised beds help with someone sitting in a chair while braiding the growing grasses. Larger fields can be developed, with extensive cultivation. Once established, cultivation is minimal.

How are hydrosols made? The distillation process involves filling the still with plant material and passing steam through the plant under pressure. The pressurized steam breaks open the cells of the plant and releases its oil content. The steam and the oil molecules pass through a cooling condenser, which turns the steam back to water.

The water is collected in a florentine-like flask, and the oil generally floats on the surface of the water. This water is the hydrosol. There are many used steam distillation plants available, usually for scrap. Most come from mint farms, growing Peppermint, Spearmint, or other essentials oils.

A typical steam distillation unit will hold upward of 600 lbs. of wet material in a batch situation. A typical field will yield upward of 4,000 lbs. per cutting, I don’t know if this is a crop where two or three cuttings are available per year. You do the math.

I can advise you NOT to grow it in rows (per se), as this is a grass, not a shrub. I would guess that the best way to plant this is by drilling it, based on its germination ratio. Once established, its longer length will "umbrella" out most all other grasses and annuals.

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