Western science has caught up with Native American wisdom in uses for sweetgrass as researchers identify compounds in the aromatic herb that can keep mosquitoes at bay.
The American Chemical Society will host a news conference Tuesday morning to discuss that their experiments revealed how chemicals in sweetgrass oil match the repelling effectiveness of the common ingredient in insect sprays like Off! Deep Woods.
The findings come from studies of traditional therapies in Native American tribes. Sweetgrass is one of the sacred plants traditionally used in Native American culture.
Scholars report that it was also used as incense in ritual purifications. Natives have always known that its fragrance kept biting bugs away, and they often covered themselves and their homes in the plant.
“We found that in our search for new insect repellents, folk remedies have provided good leads,” according to Chemist Charles Cantrell in a news release from the American Chemical Society.
Cantrell and the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigated the compounds by steam-distilling oil from the plant and testing the mosquitoes’ avoidance of the oil alongside the standard insect repellent DEET.
Basketweaver Marilyn Dingle uses sweetgrass for her craft, and she chuckled when South Carolina’s Post and Courier newspaper told her about the research. But she said the bugs don’t bother her when she’s pulling the plants.
“That’s something to think about,” Dingle said to the newspaper. “Gee whiz.”
Researchers found that the chemicals phytol and coumarin in sweetgrass repel insects, and both of these compounds are already known to have these effects. Cantrell is nonetheless happy to show that “there’s a real scientific basis to this folklore.”