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Growing the Medicines: Tobacco, Sage, Cedar & Sweetgrass

(Onkwawen Tkaienthohseron “Our Garden” The Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres)

If your garden group plans on growing the 4 medicines it’s important to grow them in a good way. You can plant the medicines in the ground or in a container; however, you should always use organic growing methods to help to keep them pure and to preserve their healing qualities. If you decide to grow them in the ground, be sure to plant them in an area of the garden that does not see heavy walking traffic. They should also be planted away from any streets where they may be exposed to any car exhaust or other sources of contamination.

Each of the four sacred medicines was given to the First Nations people as a means of communicating with the Creator. Tobacco was the first plant to be received, and is therefore considered to be the most powerful of all medicines. Tobacco is followed by sage, cedar, and sweetgrass. It is sometimes thought that tobacco sits in the eastern door, sweetgrass in the southern door, sage in the west and cedar in the north; however, these assigned directions differ from First Nation to First Nation. Together, this quartet works to establish a potent connection to the Creator and the Spirit World. Various nations have different teachings regarding these medicines. The following section provides general information regarding the Four Sacred Medicines, and may differ from certain teachings. For a more in depth exploration of the Four Medicines, consult with a local Elder, Healer or Medicine Person.

Growing Tobacco

Tobacco grew naturally in what is now known as the Americas. It wasn’t until 1492 that tobacco was introduced to Europe.

History: As aboriginal people we use Traditional Tobacco to represent the honesty that we carry in our hearts when words are to be spoken between two people or to the spirit world. When a request is made, a teaching is shared, a question is asked, or a prayer is offered, the Sacred Tobacco travels ahead of the words so that honesty will be received in a kind and respectful way. Tobacco is seen as a gift given us by the Creator. To offer tobacco is to pay an ultimate respect to that which you are asking. When explorers reached the New World, Aboriginal people had been growing and using tobacco for centuries.

Cultural Uses: Each nation and community has its own individual ceremonies around the uses for each of the sacred medicines. Teachings from various nations tend to overlap, however.

Use of tobacco among First Nations is widespread. Among some nations, the word “poverty” is translated as literally to signify “without tobacco”, or more specifically “without the means of acquiring knowledge”. Thus, tobacco is depended on by many First Nations communities as a fundamental means of communicating with the Creator.

Tobacco Wise Aboriginal Communities: There is a major difference between Traditional Tobacco and commercial tobacco. Originally, our ancestors grew Nicotiana Rustica, however, there are more than ten plants related to Sacred Tobacco that are used in the same way and are referred to as Sacred or Traditional. Commercial tobacco which is sold in retail stores and found in commercial cigarettes is not made from Traditional Tobacco but instead is mass produced and has had a number of toxic chemicals added to it. The commercial tobacco that is sold in convenience stores and cigarette outlets has been chemically altered and is sold for profit, taking away the meaning of Tobacco’s original purpose.

Friendship Centres can do a lot to help their communities become Tobacco wise. Traditional tobacco grown in a community garden provides an excellent teaching aid that can help Friendship Centres to apply and promote traditional teachings that support the respectful use of Traditional Tobacco. Friendship Centres may also want to invite an Elder to provide teachings about responsible Tobacco use by sharing their personal history and stories about the traditional uses of tobacco. By helping to grow Traditional Tobacco in the community garden and learning about its medicinal properties youth will also gain a clear understanding of why it is important to respect this sacred medicine and why it must be treated with care.

Growing

Potential Damage: Tobacco basically grows by itself. As it is a “water” plant, weeds need to be kept to a minimum, as they steal the water. Farmers use chemicals to make their tobacco grow faster and larger and to keep the tobacco worm, a fat, green worm that will eat tobacco leaves, away. Grasshoppers can also do much damage.

Once the plant begins to grow, look for bugs and other pests. When the tobacco begins to flower, it is important to remove the flowers. This allows the plant to move from a seed producing (reproductive) stage to a leaf producing (vegetative) stage. This process of removing the flowers is called “topping”, and is followed by the growth of suckers. Suckers begin to sprout at the joints of the leaves and the primary stalk. These should be pinched off before they steal the nutrients from the main plants.

Initial Stages of Planting: It is beneficial to seed tobacco plants in a greenhouse due to the extremely small seeds. This also cuts down on the germination time. One method of greenhouse growth is called the float management system. Seeds are planted in segmented trays floating on a pool of water. Each plant has its own section. Plant seeds early in the year by scattering them onto the surface of the soil, since germination is activated by light. Seeds should be mixed with sand and spread evenly over the soil. Mulch can be useful in the germination of the seeds. If using plastic, replace it with canvas after the plants begin to sprout. Proper maintenance i.e. clipping, watering and fertilizing, is crucial to the plants’ development.

Transplanting: After 6-12 weeks, the plans will have reached approximately 15-20 cm (6-8 in.). They are now ready to be transplanted outside. Use high, wide beds for transplanted tobacco plants. Do not place plants too close together as all leaves need exposure to sunlight. After transplanting, the plants will require another 70-130 days to reach maturity.

Harvesting

Topping: when the Tobacco plant reached a certain stage of maturity, it develops a flower cluster at its tip, as well as the tips of any remaining suckers. As explained previously, the plant should now be “topped”, or have this flower cluster cut off. This is done in order to divert energy from the flowers and into the leaves.

When the plant has reached the topping stage, it is very gummy. If you do not smoke commercial cigarettes, the nicotine and gum from the plants can cause health problems for some people. Wear gloves while suckering, topping and cutting. Wearing long sleeves also helps as your arms can collect quite a bit of the gummy substance.

Drying

Once you have topped the plant, it will stop growing. You must continue to keep the suckers and pests off. The plant will remain about another month in its dying stage while the leaves begin to turn yellow.

On a dry day, when the leaves are quite yellow and no rain is expected for a while, take a tobacco knife, or a small axe, and cut the plant down at the base. Use tobacco sticks such as a wooden dowel about 91 cm/3 ft long with a pointed end and an inverted metal cone on the blunt of the stick. The pointed end of the stick is pushed into the ground. The metal cone is on the other end of the stick, in the air. Slide the stick through 5 to 6 plants, starting from the base of each plant. The cone goes through the middle of the stalk, about 15 cm/6 inches up from the base of the stalk. Once all the plants have been cut and placed on sticks, they’re left in the field to finish drying. Once they dry up, they are fairly easy to carry. Some rain will not do any damage to the dried plants; however, do not push plants down the stick to the ground: they need air to circulate around the leave if it rains. Some mud on the leaves is not a problem.

Final steps in drying: After the plants have been dead in the fields for about a week or so, collect all the sticks and hang them someplace indoors, out of the rain in particular. This is done usually in the late summer. Put the sticks on beams, keeping the sticks about 30 cm/1 ft apart to let air circulate. Hang the plants stalk end up, leaves and tips down for about a month.

Stripping

Now that the tobacco has been dried, moisture must reintegrate itself into the leaves. The tobacco need to be taken down when there has been enough moisture absorbed into the leaves. It is easy to figure out whether or not the leaves have absorbed enough moisture: if they crumble, then they are not ready.

Stripping is usually started when the cooler weather begins to set in. The tobacco must be stripped within a few days of achieving adequate moisture to keep it from heating up and/or rotting. Green spots may appear on the leaves; this is normal and shouldn’t be a concern.

Tips/Recommendations

Tobacco grows with more success when it is planted in an area of soil that has previously been used to grow tobacco. The longer the soil has been producing tobacco, the better. Tobacco benefits from compost made from its own stocks, although not the leaves.

Growing Sage

Artemisia ludoviciana, otherwise known as Western Mugwort, Prairie Sagebrush, Native Wormwood and White Sage, is an integral part of Native culture.

Sage is quite common throughout North America and can sometimes be seen growing roadside from Canada to Mexico. Sage is not to be confused with the herb of the same name. Sage (Salvia officnalis) is often used in cooking and is native to Southern Europe.

Cultural Uses

Sage is an important medicine to many First Nations cultures. It is generally employed as a means of releasing troubles from the mind and removing negative energies. Sage is used most commonly for smudging. It is believed to be potent cleanser for homes and sacred items.

Potential damage: Moist and wet soils will likely cause sage to develop root rot. To avoid this problem, make sure the soil is well drained. High humidity can also be problematic, as it may cause a decline in foliage.

Initial Stages of Planting: Sage can be grown in all temperature zones; however it requires full sun. It is an upright perennial sub-shrub, up to 1.2 m/4 ft tall with a 60 cm/2ft spread. Sage needs little water and well drained soil. It does well in poor to average soil. There are two common methods for growing sage, though cuttings or seeds.

Propagation from Cuttings:

  • Split the plant clump into pieces by hand, and then cut the plant into sections, each with one or more buds.
  • When dividing the whole plant, gently loosed the soil around the roots, using extra care not to damage the roots. Lift the plant up and gently shake off any excess dirt from the roots.
  • Divide the plant into smaller sections using your hands, retaining only the healthy, vigorous sections.
  • Replant the new sections as soon as possible. If your replanting process will take a few hours, dip the plants in water briefly and then seal them in plastic bags. Keep them in a cool, shady place until you are ready to plant them.
  • If you are replanting in an area previously used for growing sage, cut back the old top growth and plant the new cuttings at the same depth as before.
  • If the new cutting has roots, make sure they are all spread out. These newly-transplanted cuttings need lots of water in this initial stage, but be careful not to wash away the soil and expose the roots when watering.

Propagation by seed: (Germination rate is only about 15% and is not successful as using cuttings)

  • Sow seeds in the spring, when the soil has warmed to at least 7 degrees Celsuius/45 degrees Fahrenheit. Use a very sandy soil.
  • Prepare the seedbed by digging over the soil to one spade depth, then rake the soil and firm it down.
  • There are two techniques for sowing seeds, by broadcast and in drills:
    • Sowing by Broadcast: Sprinkle seeds thinly and evenly on the seedbed and lightly rake them into the soil. Make sure to water the seeds well in this beginning stage.
    • Sowing in Drills: Using either a trowel tip or the corner of a how, dig shallow drill holes 8-15 cm (3”-6”) apart. Place seeds in the holes then firmly cover with soil.
  • Water seedlings regularly until roots have developed. Germination is, on average, 14 days.

Harvesting

It is best to harvest sage just before the flowers begin to bloom. A second harvest may be gathered before the seeds are fully developed.

Drying

To dry sage, hand the plants upside-down in a dark, airy place. When it is dry, strip the leaves from the stems and store them in airtight containers. Wrap the stems into bundles. Some sage can be stored without being stripped. This sage is used for ceremonial purposes.

Benefits/Advantages

In addition to its ceremonial use, Sage has many medicinal properties. Sage tea promotes moon times (menses), as it is a uterus stimulant. As such, pregnant women should not consume sage. Women who are breastfeeding should also be warned, as sage will stop the flow of milk. Similarly, it will also reduce salivation, yet increase the flow of bile. Sage leaves also contain tannin and thujone, causing it to be an effective astringent. It is also an antiseptic, useful for healing wounds.

Sage has also been known to benefit the stomach, intestines, kidneys, liver, spleen and reproductive organs. It is generally a medicine to cure all ills. In addition, Sage contains high amounts of calcium, potassium, vitamin B1 and Zinc. Moderate amounts of magnesium, iron, vitamin A and B complete, niacin and sodium can also be found in sage. Small amounts of phosphorus, manganese, silicon, sulphur, sodium and vitamin C are also present in sage, as well as trace amounts of selenium. As you can see, sage is full of vitamins and mineral, and is quite healthful.

As with anything, sage should be used in moderation. Due to the high amounts of nutrients, sage should be ingested with discretion. The sage plant itself is exceptionally hardy, and can survive periods of intense heat and drought, but can also withstand low temperatures of -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit).

Tips/Recommendations

Cut back in the spring to keep young foliage coming.

Growing Cedar Trees

Although named cedar, this plant is actually a juniper. Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus Virginiana) is a pioneer invader of forests that have been clear-cut, fields that have been scraped of topsoil, lands that have been strip-mined and gorges that have been filled with clay and rocks. As one of the four sacred medicines, it is extremely important to many First Nations. Cedar has been most commonly used as a hedge, and can be seen surrounding many houses.

Cultural Uses

Like many traditional medicines, Cedar is used to purify the home. Cedar branches are used in many ceremonies as a form of protection. In sweat lodges, cedar branches cover the floor. The branches also circle a faster’s lodge to keep him or her sage. Another way in which cedar is used in the bath. Cedar baths are very healing.

Growing

Potential Damage: Branches of growing trees can potentially cause damage to nearby features. As such, planting cedar trees under electric or telephone wires, too close to existing trees, or under roof overhangs should be avoided if possible. A tree’s root system can also cause considerable damage to underground features. Therefore, cedar trees should not be planted over septic drain fields (roots may cause clogging), buried pipes or cables. Areas subject to flooding for more than two continuous weeks per year should not be used to grow cedars as flooding may be harmful to the trees.

Grasses, ferns and weeds can not only rob your seedling if valuable moisture, nutrients and sunlight, but also harbour insects and diseases that will have an effect on survival. It will be necessary to remove this vegetation from around the young seedling occasionally. Pull it out by hand without disturbing the root system of the young cedar seedling. Do not use herbicides. Cedar is particularly susceptible to mites, midges, red cedar bark beetle and bagworm. Cedar may also develop rust, which manifests itself as reddish orange outgrowths which can be mistaken for fruit. While the rust spores will not negatively affect the cedar tree itself, they can infect nearby hawthorns, quinces, apples, and other Rose Family members, infecting them and often destroying their fruits.

Initial Steps of Planting: Plant Cedar trees at least 92 cms/3ft away from water’s edge, further if possible. Use common sense when you are planting, plant cedar where you would want them to grow into large trees. Cedars require sunlight, but will still grow in the shade, albeit, somewhat slower.

Use care with the roots. Do not let them dry out or disturb them any more than you have to. Keep the roots completely submerged in a bucket of water while you are planting. Do not keep a bundle of seedlings in your hand while looking for the next spot to plant a tree.

Cedar can withstand many types of soil, including alkaline, acid, moist and dry. Simply make sure to use well-drained soil. Plant seeds or seedlings in 15-20 cm/6-8 inch diameter holes. Spacing should be at least 1.5 m/5 ft apart. If you are transplanting seedlings, carefully place the roots pointing downward in to the hole and fill it with soil. Compact the soil tightly around the roots. Any voids between the soil and the roots will cause the roots to dry out and affect survival. Do not use a planting spike for this process. Keep the soil around the newly planted tree continually moist for at least a month. Water them every couple of days during this period. Water during dry spells as needed.

If you are unable to plant the seedlings immediately, you can keep the roots submerged in water for up to a week; however, beyond that time, root rot will occur and the survival rate will decrease substantially.

Harvesting

Harvesting cedar branches is very simple. Using a sharp knife or pruning shears, merely cut as many branches as you need. Try not to cut all the branches off, however. Also, do not cut leaves from the same place. Try to spread out the area of cutting.

Benefits

Some advantages of cedar are purely aesthetic. Cedar foliage is evergreen, so this tree will remain colourful throughout all the seasons. Cedar fruits also support over 40 wildlife species, so growing these trees will be beneficial to the ecosystem. It also provides shelter to many animals during the cold winter months, as it is one of the few trees to remain leafy during this season. While often used to purify the home, cedar also has many valuable medicinal properties. Cedar baths are used widely for healing and cleansing purposes. When cedar is put in the fire with tobacco, it crackles. It is said that this cracking is the sound of cedar calling the attention of the spirits to the offering that is being made. Cedar is also widely used in fasting and sweat lodge ceremonies as a form of protection. Cedar branches cover the floor of the sweat lodge and a circle of cedar surrounds the faster’s lodge. Many people also use cedar to purify their homes.

Tips/Recommendations

Occasional feeding with liquid fertilizer is good, but not essential unless you soil is poor.

Growing Sweetgrass

Sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) grows in marshy areas and releases a sweet aroma into the summer air. It is often cultivated by First Nations people and woven into braids for later ceremonial use. Sweetgrass is a “circumpolar plant”, meaning it grows in both the North American and European Continents around the Arctic Circle.

Cultural Uses

Sweetgrass is generally seen as the sacred hair of Mother Earth. Its sweet aroma reminds people of the gentle love she has for them. When used in a healing circle, sweetgrass has a calming effect. It is also used for smudging and often represents the teaching of kindness.

Growing

Potential Damage: There are five things that will kill sweetgrass plants:

  • Drifting or accidentally sprayed herbicides. Growing you own plants, in a protected area is best.
  • Weeds, especially European perennial grasses and broadleaved weeds. It is important to weed at least once a year.
  • Lack of water. Usually during the summer, plants need water at least once a day.
  • Clay Soil, especially sticky clay, which makes it difficult for the roots to penetrate. Clay and peat pots are also detrimental, since they can cause roots to dry out.
  • High organic-matter soils that are waterlogged. Sweetgrass plants like sandy to sandy-loam soil and dislike clay soil or waterlogged soils. Wet soil should crumble when it is squeezed. If it stays in a tight ball, you probably need to add coarse sand, such as that found in a sandbox, or coarse compost to your sweetgrass soil.

Initial Stages of Planting

Sweetgrass is “rhizomatous”, meaning is spreads by sending out horizontal, root-like stems called rhizomes. Rhizomes are basically underground shoots; they grow horizontally through the soil a short distance from the parent plant before sprouting up to the soil surface to begin growing as another plant. In fact, a single sweetgrass plug (a stem or two with a few inches of frizzy rhizome) can spread to cover a square foot of ground in a single year. Because most sweetgrass seed is infertile it should be planted from root plugs. Plugs grow best when they are started in wide, shallow plastic pots and covered in potting soil. Keep the pots in a shaded area for a few weeks until new roots have developed. Once the plants have filled out the pots, they should be transplanted into the garden with about 30 cm (1 ft.) of space between each plant. Plant sweetgrass in rich, moist, slightly sandy soil, with full exposure to the sun.

Watering should be done thoroughly, keeping plants constantly moist but not overwhelmingly wet. Never let the soil surface dry out completely, as drought is the major cause of death of a sweetgrass patch. The leaves will curl when the soil is getting excessively dry, and can revive with a thorough watering.

Fertilizer is needed 2-3 times during the growing season. Make sure to use a balanced fertilizer. If you use chemical fertilizer, a lawn-starter fertilizer is best, but chemical fertilizers in general are not recommended as they can burn the plants and are bad for the environment. Instead, use 2 kg/5 lbs each of blood meal and bone meal per 9.3 m2/100 ft2, and then periodically add 2.3 kg/5 lbs of the mineral Potassium Sulphate. Even when adequately fertilized, the plants will have a yellow-green look, which is normal.

Harvesting

When harvesting your sweetgrass plants, it is best to cut them, rather then pulling them up by the roots, so as to leave a short portion of the stem above the ground. You may use scissors to do so.

If you do not want to cut the grass, you may pull the stems out of the base sheath without causing damage to the roots. To do this, support the base of the plant with one hand while pulling the longer blades out of the basal sheath. This will allow the plants to re-grow quickly, and it is then possible to get a second harvest before autumn. It is even possible to achieve three cuttings a year from an established plant: early June, early August and October, just before the plants become dormant. If you do pull out some roots, do not worry. Simply cut the roots off and replant them soon after (see previous section). During the summer, sweetgrass grows nearly 2.5 cm/1 in. per day.

Braiding and Drying

Braid the sweetgrass as soon after harvesting as possible. Each plant will most likely include three to four blades of grass. Split the plants into individual blades. Clean all the blades by removing any roots that may have been pulled out. Again, save these roots and replant them as soon as possible.

Next, line up all the blades so that all the ends are reasonably well-aligned. Grab a bunch of grass in your hand and secure using a strip of red cloth, or any other means that you desire. The amount of sweetgrass in each bunch will depend on personal size preference. If you have waited a day or even a few hours, the grass may have slightly dried out, leaving it stiff and hard to braid. In this case, dip the tied bunches of sweetgrass into a bucket of warm water for a few minutes to soften the grass blades. This will allow the grass to be more malleable and easier to work with.

To braid the sweetgrass, you may wish to work with a partner. One person should hold the tied end of the sweetgrass bunch while the other person braids.

Once you have finished making braids from all of your sweetgrass, it is necessary to let them dry. You may place them outside in the sun on a dry surface. If this is not possible, you may tie all braids onto a long piece of string, with about 30 cm/1 ft space between each braid. Tie the string along the ceiling and leave it there until it is dry.

How to tell Sweetgrass from Other Grasses

The following are several clues in helping you decipher sweetgrass from other grasses:

  • The base of the leaves, just below soil surface, is broad, purple and white and is hairless.
  • The top sides of leaves are very shiny and hairless.
  • The undersides of the leaves are matte and flat, never v-shaped.
  • The leaves curl quickly when dried in the sun within a few hours. Most other weed-grass leaves remain flat when dried.
  • Leaves 30 cm/1 ft long or more are at least 0.64 cm/1.01 cm/0.25-0.4 in with an average of 0.83 cm/0.328 in.

Benefits/Advantages

Sweetgrass is extremely winter hardy. Cold will probably not affect plants as they will become dormant to the roots in cold weather and re-sprout when the night-time temperatures get back to about 4 degrees Celsius/40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Straw mulch over winter will protect the roots. When mulch is removed in early spring, you may find that leaf growth proceeds faster than plants that haven’t been mulched.

Sweetgrass plants occur naturally up to the Arctic Circle. Never grow sweetgrass plants indoors during the winter, as roots require a winter dormant period. Sweetgrass is also extremely long-lived due to its extensive roots system. If you plant sweetgrass in your garden or field, expect that it will be difficult to remove.

Tips/Recommendations

Sweetgrass plants produce seeds, nut most of these seeds are not usually viable. Starting form seed can take 4-5 years in order to get the same sized plant that only takes 1-2 months to produce from a plug (a stem or two with a few inches of fuzzy rhizome). Once your plants are established and spreading, you can spread them faster by cutting out plugs from your patch.

Fertilize your sweetgrass at least once a month during the growing season, and more often if you are frequently cutting grass for braids. Use blood and bone meal at least twice during the growing season. If you are wild-crafting this plant, along with your tobacco offering, leave a new offering of at least five pounds of organic fertilizers per 100 square feet harvested. The will strands of sweetgrass are disappearing because nutrients are removed from the ground when braids are harvested, and the soils fertility is being depleted over time.