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I have been interested in nature for most of my life but since I retired I spend as much time as I can exploring the nature reserves and wildlife hotspots of my adopted home, Dorset in southern England. Whilst out I record what I see and take snaps where I can (I am no photographer!) and that forms the basis of my Nature of Dorset website. When I find something new I like to research it and write about it in my nature notes, it is how I learn and hopefully you might find my notes helpful as well!

This website is for the people of Dorset interested in wildlife and for people from elsewhere interested in the wildlife of Dorset!

12 November, 2016

Sweet Vernal Grass: the vanilla grass

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!
Sweet Vernal Grass: the vanilla grass