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Species Notebook:

  • Sweet Vernal-grass

    Sweet Vernal Grass: the vanilla grass

    Post date: Saturday, 12 November, 2016 - 20:35

    Walk across grassland anywhere in Dorset in high summer and you will certainly find sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum). Indeed a quick glance at the distribution map for this species on my Nature of Dorset website will reveal a mass of pins showing it is widespread on all types of dry soil right across the county.

    Growing to just 50 centimetres or so tall it has a conical and tufted flower head that is a little bit scruffy when compared to its cousins in the cat's-tail family which are much smoother. I know all grasses look the same (!) but actually sweet vernal grass is quite distinctive and once learned is easy to pick out. As it is so common you quickly get to recognise it.

    Why is it called sweet vernal grass? There is a clue in its scientific name, oderatum; odour or smell. When cut and dried it has the sweet smell on new mown hay, indeed it is the main ingredient of the smell of new mown hay. The scent is likened to that of vanilla and so the sweet vanilla grass became the sweet vernal grass over time. 

    It has been sewn for grazing and used as a lawn grass and it has even been grown specifically for its scent and it can be found in flower from April right through until the end of July and as a dried seed head in August. It is also known as holy grass again through its scent and the 'smells and bells' of high church!


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