I admit, I’m staunchly anti-lawn. Only 50% of this mindset comes from the fact that I’m very allergic to grass. The other 50% comes from the fact that lawns consume more than their share of water, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers; take up space that could be better used by useful plants; and seem to be a weird kind of status symbol. Also, I hate homeowners’ associations with a passion, and they seem to be really anal about grass.
(I used to try to deliberately sabotage a particularly douchey HOA president by discreetly hucking cannabis seeds into his lawn at every opportunity, and I apologize to no man.)
Since it’s getting into late spring soon, my feelings about grass are at a particularly high peak. It had me wondering — short of raising very small quantities of grazing livestock, is grass actually good for anything?
I also read an old recipe for a hand of glory that involved smoking the severed hand of a hanged man with a mixture of hay and other herbs, and hay is basically large grass, so I thought there might be something there. Could lawns be hiding a treasure trove of magic?
Grass Magical Properties and Folklore
First, it should be noted that “grass” on its own isn’t terribly descriptive. There are a ton of grasses that are known for their magical and medicinal properties, like vetiver and lemongrass. Others, like sweetgrass, have religious or ceremonial significance. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to confine the idea of grass to species like timothy hay and Kentucky bluegrass — the kind of grasses that you’re likely to see appear in paddocks or lawns, either intentionally or as weeds.
Sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) is said to be particularly aggressive when it comes to triggering hay fever. Interestingly, preparing a tincture of the fresh grass, splashing some into one’s hands, and inhaling the fumes is said to help halt an allergy attack.
Hay, in general, is associated with pregnancy and fertility. Some sources treat it as a healing herb.
Couch grass (Elymus repens) is used for happiness, love, lust, hex-breaking, and exorcisms. It appears to be a general “get rid of bad stuff, bring in the good” herb, particularly when it comes to getting rid of malevolent-but-not-terribly-powerful spirits.
Goosegrass is name applied to several species, some of which appear as common weeds in lawns. Cleavers (Galium aparine), which doesn’t really resemble grass, is sometimes called goosegrass. It’s often used for spells to bind two things together. Indian goosegrass (Eleusine indica) is a species that is considered a nuisance plant in lawns and golf greens. Goosegrass is generally associated with dreams, wisdom, and luck.
Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon), a common lawn grass in the U.S., is an important Ayurvedic herb. Some research has shown that it may be helpful for controlling blood sugar. It’s also said to regulate bowel movements, ease digestion, heal mouth ulcers and skin problems, and help stop bleeding from hemorrhoids. It has some antimicrobial properties, which can make it useful for healing minor infections.
In Irish folklore, there’s a phenomenon called féar gorta — famine grass, or hungry grass. This was a patch of grass, completely indistinguishable from any other, that would cause intense hunger pangs in anyone who stood upon it. Some unlucky steppers might even become suddenly exhausted, or even pass away where they stood.
In some tellings, this is because the grass is growing over the grave of a victim of the Great Famine. In others, hungry grass is attributed to malicious faeries.
Crabgrass seems to be the bane of many a stereotypical suburban dad. Far from merely being an unsightly interloper into a perfect putting-green lawn, this grass is useful as animal fodder, producing fiber for paper, and even produces edible seeds. Hairy crabgrass (Digitaria sanguinalis) is sometimes cultivated in Europe, and the seeds are known as “Polish millet.” When ground, these seeds produce a useful white flour for baking.
Hairy crabgrass is also medicinally useful. In a decoction, it was used as a treatment for gonorrhea. It was also sometimes used as an emetic, or for general debility — though I’m not sure how throwing up a whole bunch would really help there.
The Hand of Glory
As I mentioned above, hay is (sometimes) instrumental in making a Hand of Glory. This was a kind of grisly candleholder intended to help thieves go about their business. When set with a candle (in some tellings, one made with the semen of the hand’s former owner), it would cause all of the occupants of a house to fall into a deep sleep, as well as unlocking any pesky doors that might stand in between you and the house’s valuables.
All recipes for this grisly curio involve cutting the left hand off of a man freshly hanged on the gallows. If he was a murderer, it should be the hand that did the deed.
According to one recipe, the hand then needed to have as much blood removed as possible. In one recipe, it must then be picked in the urine of a man, woman, stallion, mare, and dog for a month. Then, it should be smoked with hay and other herbs, then hung from a church door overnight. At that point, it’ll be ready to use.
In another, the hand must be packed in a jar with salt, pepper, and saltpeter, and left for two weeks. After that, it should be baked in an oven heated with vervain and ferns for one hour.
Recipes for the candle are pretty specific, too. Some require it to be made of the dead man’s fat and semen, with a wick made of his hair. (Unfortunately, getting hair to light isn’t exactly easy — unlike cotton, it doesn’t really burn. Animal fibers tend to just smolder.) Other instructions say it was best to just dip the whole dingdang hand in wax, then light the fingers directly. This seems a bit wasteful to me, though. After a month of pickling with horse pee and smoking with herbs, I’d like my dead guy’s hand to be more than a one-use item!
First, you want to make sure that you’ve removed all of the stems and see-
Wait. Hang on.
Using grass magically or medicinally is fairly simple; the only really tricky part is figuring out what you’ve got. There are reasons why all those short green lawn plants are just called “grass,” and, if you’re not an expert, it’s probably pretty tricky to tell the difference between Bermuda grass, Kentucky bluegrass, or fine fescue.
Once you’ve figured out what you’re dealing with, the next step is pretty much up to you. It’s worth acknowledging that a lot of the grass species used for lawns aren’t from Europe, so there isn’t going to be a lot of Witchcraft or Druidic lore behind them.
In general, grasses seem to be treated as positive omens that bring luck. This isn’t too surprising — grass is fodder for grazing animals, and its appearance in spring meant that they could graze, and not rely on stored hay. Hungry animals meant hungry people, and grass made all of the difference. Fresh grass chased away the evil spirit of starvation.
Assuming you aren’t allergic, you can place dried grass in a sachet or charm bag for luck, fertility, and protection from evil. You could also steep dried blades in hot water, and add the liquid to a floor wash for the same purposes. Sufficiently long grass blades could be dried and bound together in an herb bundle to fumigate an area, as well.
I can’t vouch for using grass medicinally, particularly given the difficulty with distinguishing one species from another. If you want to use it that way, you may be better off buying dried or tinctured grasses, versus trying to harvest and prepare your own. (Grasses are also generally doused in pesticides, fertilizers, and other things you probably don’t want in your medicine.)
Until lawns fall out of fashion, at least we can use grass for something positive.
Well, you can. I’ll be over here with the antihistamines.