Yarb Tales - Vetiver Grass
May 23, 2016

The Heritage Herb Garden at the Ozark Folk Center graces the park with visual colors and textures, sweet and pungent aromas and helps us to interpret the history of the human use of plants.

Vetiver grass, formally known as Vetiveria zizanioides was given the new genus name Chysopogon in 1991. Also called khus khus, this herb is a tall, clumping grass that is native to tropical Asia. It is cultivated in Haiti, Réunion and Java for the essential oil of its roots. The essential oil is valued in the industries of perfumery and flavoring.

I keep the essential oil of vetiver on hand for making insect-repellent and calming massage oil to apply to my skin. The essential oil is viscous and should be mixed with a carrier oil such as almond or olive. Only one drop of essential oil is needed to scent a quarter cup of carrier oil.

Numerous scientific studies have shown that vetiver essential oil is toxic to termites and ants. When using vetiver to remove these and other pests from my home and garden, I mix 10 drops of the essential oil with a cup of Murphy’s Oil Soap™ and then add the soap to water, at the rate of about two tablespoons per gallon.

The Heritage Herb Garden has had this easy-to-grow plant for at least two decades. We grow it in containers as it is not hardy here in zone 7. According to Dr. Art Tucker and Tom DeBaggio in The Encyclopedia of Herbs—a Comprehensive Review of Herbs of Flavor and Fragrance, vetiver is only hardy in zone 9, marginally so in zone 8.

Clumps of vetiver will survive in one-gallon growing containers. Every year or so the roots are turned out of the pots, chopped off to about 3-inches long, and divided into four new plants, using a sharp hatchet or big knife and pruning shears. The tops of the leaves are cut back to between 4 to 6-inches. The new vetiver plants are then transplanted into fresh potting medium and are good to grow on for another year or two.

The severed roots are the harvest. These must be washed and rinsed until free of dirt or growing medium. This is a pleasing, fragrant job. The aroma has been described as woodsy. After the moisture has left the roots they can be placed in muslin bags and stored in linen or cedar closets to help repel insects from linen and wool.

If vetiver grass is planted in the ground, the roots will plunge 10-feet straight down into the soil. They are very difficult to extract from our rocky garden beds. Nonetheless, this characteristic is put to good use on loose, eroding soils in tropical climates. The roots hold soil in place, even on slopes, defending the land from mudslides and acting as a filtering system to catch and trap pollutants that are carried in runoff. Vetiver grass is being used to reclaim landfill property in China and to prevent mudslides in Southern California. Vetiver will adapt to wet or dry sites and will tolerate heavy metals in the soil. The plants are sterile and will not produce viable seed; they also retain a clumping form rather than producing spreading stolons. Because of these characteristics there is little reason to worry that vetiver will become an invasive species.

Vetiver plants, along with many other useful herbs are available to visitors to the Craft Village at the Herb Market. If I don’t see you in the future—I’ll see you in the pasture!