By Anita Kalnay, RA, EOT
Meet Steven Williams, the Sweetgrass Guy
“2022 was the wettest June EVER, seven inches of rain! At least here in St. Albert, Alberta!
“Sweetgrass loves the moisture but I couldn’t get access to the field,” says Steven Williams as we begin our conversation about sweetgrass.
“July came around and things dried up.”
Steven is “the sweetgrass guy” and the only commercial distiller of sweetgrass hydrosol that he is aware of. So the fact that you as a CAOA member get to meet and read about him is a treasure in itself!
“Sweetgrass is distilled from the Hierochloe odorata species, also known as ‘holy grass.’ It is unique in that it does not produce an essential oil, only an aromatic water known as a hydrosol. There is no such thing as sweetgrass essential oil as the plant does not contain any oil.
"I start a new patch every year. The plot itself is an area about the size of a large city lot. The harvest is best on the second year cut for distillation.”
“Sweetgrass is not conducive to growing in large plots. It has to be grown in smaller plots. It spreads by underground runners. So you put a row out and in a year it’s two to three paces wide. But as it spreads it becomes weaker in the centre, like a donut, and it can get weedy. The plots are small and new ones need to be planted every year. I’m picky about weeds, so by year three I till the plot under and start a new patch. From one patch that begins as a row 10 metres long, I can get one or two truckloads by year two, so it yields well.”
How do you cut it?
“I use a weed whacker with a hedge trimmer blade. I take long swipes and it lays it all down.
“It demands personal attention. It wouldn’t be economically feasible to mechanize the plant harvest, so there is a lot of hand labour involved,” he chuckles.
How did you get into sweetgrass distillation?
“I used to work at the University of Alberta at the botany greenhouses. One year, a grad student gave me a handful of sweetgrass seed. An aromatherapist suggested I try to distill the grass. My question was ‘then what’? What do you do with the hydrosol after distilling it? Who would be interested in buying it?
“Her answer was rather straight forward ‘I’m not sure who you will sell it to, but you’ll figure that out.’
“Persistence pays. I did my first batch in 2003. It took four to five years before I felt like it would be worth doing. It takes a few years to even determine whether it is worth even pursuing as a crop focus. Not just will it grow, but what do I do with it after I grow it. I spent a lot of time sending e-mails and samples out before it got going.
“By 2006 to 2008, after a few years of growing and distilling, I felt like the idea was going to work. There were people interested in purchasing sweetgrass hydrosol.”
Steven retired from the U of A in 2018.
“I used to grow medicinal herbs, such as wild mint, monarda, rhodiola and echinacea. Anybody can grow a plant, that’s not the hard part. The hard part is how do you sell and pay for your time.”
How do you get customers?
“Sweetgrass is one that worked. There is no competition. No one else in the world does it. I do hundreds of litres every year. I find that most of my customers have referred other people. All my business is done from e-mail contacts and referrals. I don’t even have a website. I sell out every year, why would I want to manage a website?
“There is a lot to the management. I have sales mostly in North America. Thankfully, I have a loyal following, and people often go from 1 to 30 litres per order as they get familiar with the product and figure out what to do with it. It’s been wonderful!”
Who buys it?
“Aromatherapists are the main customers. Many customers use the hydrosol as an ingredient in cosmetic products. Also, lots of New Age shops buy it, meaning people who sell herbs and crystals. Tourist locations in the U.S. sell the hydrosol, but sweetgrass is anything but main stream.”
Suggested uses include:
- As a liquid smudge where the burning of sweetgrass braids is not allowed, e.g. In hospitals
- As an ingredient for cooking, e.g. sweetgrass syrup or in cheesecakes
- As an ingredient in cosmetic products
- Makes a unique fragrance alone or blended with essential oils to be used as an air freshener for vehicles, bathrooms, etc.
- Add to small fountains to provide a fresh natural scent
- Add to essential oil diffusers along with oils or in place of them
What about Indigenous users?
“It is used by the Native community. They use the sweetgrass braids, but the hydrosol is not culturally used so the Indigenous market is still largely untapped in that regard.
“The average person doesn’t have a clue what to do with a hydrosol water. The scent that comes out of sweetgrass is from the coumarins, meaning sweet clover and hay scents that smell like new mown hay.”
I have also used tonka bean-infused crystals in natural perfumery. The sweet coumarin hay-like scent is used to make fougère and chypre accords. I love the smell of new-mown hay. Research suggests that it can be used safely in cosmetic products and it has been used in food where it is often a companion to vanilla in scent and taste offerings; however, food use in Canada has been discontinued.
“Sweetgrass does not contain or produce any essential oil. It does, however, produce a beautiful and fragrant hydrosol.”
I ordered a batch and asked how long should I let it sit when I receive my hydrosol after distillation.
“Every batch is different. The first few litres of a distillation always has a little more earthy scent than the middle or last portion of a distillation.
“I hesitate to ship the hydrosol soon after distilling because it does need time to breathe and off-gas. It smells a bit raw/earthy for the first few weeks or even months sometimes. These off notes tend to dissipate over time. So, given a bit of time, it always mellows out to the fragrance we all so like.
“It is much like wine in that regard. Time allows it to mellow out and bring the desired fragrances forward. Let it rest in a cool, dark place to off-gas. There really is no magic number, but sweetgrass hydrosol should rest for a few weeks minimum after distilling. And like wine, you do nothing but let it be and it mellows out itself.”
As a side note, all hydrosols should be stored in a cool, dark place free of light and heat, which can cause degradation and microbial blooms.
How does the distillation process work?
“Care is taken to only distill the fresh green leaves and areal plant parts (seeds, stems, etc). Dead stems will produce a dead grass smell. It’s not a pleasant odour, but you can detect it. I pick all of the dead grass out.”
“A small distiller was made. It is a mobile distiller left over from an herb group that I used to belong to. It’s available, but I am the only one using it.
“Distilling is a very specialized field. You have to be in it for the long run. Even if you find plants to distill, you are back to how do I market it? In order to sell your product, you have to reach out to a lot of potential customers and do a lot of door knocking. The trick being to work with what you know, work within your own area, and stay focussed.”
What is the chemical profile analysis?
“I have never tried to get an analysis done on a hydrosol. It will give you the phand the microcompounds present, but what do you do with that? With sweetgrass hydrosol, there is not good reason to incur the expenses of an analysis because the results do not mean anything to anybody.
“To justify getting a gas chromatograph, there must be a reason for this expensive test. With lavender oil, the chemical profile may tell you which species of lavender you are dealing with. Sweetgrass hydrosol is a water containing the essence of the plant. There is no essential oil profile to see.”
What does the customer do with it?
“Creating mist bottles for aerosol sprays is the most common use. Many blend it with other hydrosols or essential oils. Cosmetic products, creams and lotions are also a common use. I had one client in Saskatoon who uses it to make soap. They all have their own reasons. It depends on the person. I’m just happy to hear that they are using it! There is a customer in Ontario who has a fairly good market with funeral homes. She does a stress-release spray with lavender that is relaxing and refreshing. The funeral home sprays the area before events. Everyone has their own niche market.”
I use it for smudging an area as a liquid smudge for clearing space. I’ve also tried as a natural perfumer to recreate the scent using 100% natural essential oils and I have created a blend called Peace that was launched in 2020. Most of my clients say that misting the back of the neck before bed helps to create a peaceful sleep.
Do you have a relationship with the plant itself?
“Whenever you grow a plant, you have a relationship. I do less talking and more listening. If you have the knowledge and background, plants will tell you things if you listen. For instance, a nutrient deficiency can be detected by observing a plant or perhaps water stress is shown by the burning/browning of leaf tips.”
In summary, “It takes a lot of effort and work when you take the first few steps. The rest will come,” was Steven’s takeaway looking back.
“Also, that there are not many people in Canada or North America that even do distilling. It’s hard to narrow down the field itself. So many are just microdistillers on the kitchen table. I am more than surprised about how things have fallen into place over the years.”
For more information, and to get on Steven’s e-mail list, please send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org. He does respond right away.
About the author: Anita Kalnay, RA, EOT, has 30 years of full-time practice as an aromatherapist and intuitive healer. She holds a diploma in Spiritual PhytoEssencing and has completed more than 3,200 certified hours in other natural health modalities. She is also a natural perfume designer and works with more than 500 essential oils. Located in the Comox Valley, BC, Anita currently serves on the CAOA board of directors. She can be found at www.genieinabottle.ca.
“I just LOVE hearing people’s stories and sharing them. If you have a story to tell, please feel free to contact me. I’d LOVE to hear it. Our aromatherapy profession has grown because of people like YOU! You can write me at email@example.com.