Kāretu "Sweetgrass"


scented grass, holy grass

Māori name                           Kāretu

Other common names            scented grass, holy grass

Scientific name                        Hierochloe redolens

Family                                        Poaceae (grass family)


 Karetu grass in Motukarara

 Dunedin Botannical Gardens, Te Waipounamu Faculty of Science - University of Auckland

Kāretu is a large grass whose scented leaves, were traditionally used to permeate the wall linings of the whare, also in the sitting areas and in the sleeping areas "as bedding" of the whare, these areas were enfused and liberally strewn with the leaves of the Kāretu. The Kāretu scented, holy grass (with the midrib removed),  were plaited and worn as personal aromatic adornments such as, headbands, belts and necklaces to attract the opposite sex. The flowering tops of kāretu were also wrapped with other aromatic  fibrous leaves and worn as necklace and waist belt. Various scented oils were prepared and wrapped in the Kāretu. The Maori Men would use kāretu as a love potion, placing pieces of the leaves in the sleeping woman’s hair, or in a place where she would later sit or sleep on. There were love laments written from the Tuhoe-land (reference readings "Maori Forest Lore" by Elsdon Best). The lament pays homage to the kāretu, of attracting a partner, of the courtship and of the consummation thereafter.



Kāretu is a large robust grass that forms loose tufts up to about 1 m tall, although much smaller on harsh sites.

Unfamiliar grasses can be difficult to identify unless close attention is paid to details of their foliage and flower parts. Some characteristics are rather complex to go into here, but useful diagnostic features of kāretu leaves are as follows:

The leaf blades, above the sheath, are up to 70 cm long, mostly flat apart from slightly inwardly rolled margins toward the base, and broad at 8−12 mm wide. They are dull green above and glossy green beneath. They are usually hairless and smooth above but the main veins are prominent and rough to touch on the lower surface, and the margins may be prickle-toothed.

The leaf sheath, the lower part of the leaf that tightly clings to the stem, is 15−30 cm long and often purplish on the lower portion.

An important diagnostic feature is the smell, reminiscent of coconut or fresh-mown hay. The green leaf has only a faint scent, but the odour becomes strong as the leaf dries.


As is common to most fast-growing plants on fertile surfaces, kāretu is palatable to grazers and browsers, but is intolerant of heavy browsing. Hence the wide introduction of wild and domestic herbivores (sheep, cattle, rabbits and hares, deer, possums, goats) and competition from browse-tolerant introduced grasses have seen a marked decline in the abundance of kāretu - from post-European.


 NZ Plants Otago University, Te Waipounamu


Photograph of Kāretu seed heads. Division of mature plants is the usual method of propagation, but kāretu can also be grown from seed.

Collect dry seed in January and February. Seed can be sown fresh or stored, but germination is enhanced following storage in a fridge for one month. Sow seeds on the surface of potting mix, or with a very thin covering. Sown seeds should be kept in a well-lit position out of direct sunlight, and held at 15−20°C. This plant is sometimes available at specialist nurseries.


Microscopic images

To see microscopic images of kāretu, go to http://www.otago.ac.nz/textiles/plantfibres/karetu.html


NZ NATIVE PLANTS  –  On-line Buys*

Kāretu Grass                 Oratia Native Plant Nursery, Waitākere Ranges, AKL

Website                             www.oratianatives.co.nz

Founder                             Geoff Davidson established 1970s

Kaupapa                            Native ecosystems destroyed from forest clearance for land  

NZ Plant Conservation Network

Common name                 Kāretu, scented holy grass

Current Threat Status     Non threatened

NZ Native                           North, South and Chatham Islands.  Three Kings Islands.

Overseas Native              Australia, New Guinea and South America

Where to buy                    www.oratianatives.co.nz

Add to cart / price           PB3 pot size $10  - as at 04 June 2009


Scented grass with dark green blades and purplish leaf bases. Prefers a sheltered site and moist soil. A cosmopolitan species used around the world to provide scented sachets and dried arrangements. 


Page last updated 25 Sep 2017