Khus-khus

Vetiveria zizanioides (or, as it’s more popularly known, khus-khus) is an Asian grass that’s native to the tropics, where it has enjoyed a reputation as both an erotic perfume and an ingredient in island cooking. Also known as vetiver grass, its roots yield an oil that is prized for its ability to fix other aromas, so they linger on the skin. In India, khus-khus has long been an ingredient in perfumes, and dampened khus-khus mats were used as fans to simultaneously move and scent the air.

Although it’s generally benign, khus-khus has been the focus of some political problems because, in India and many Arab countries, the grass is sometimes known as khas-khas — a term also used for the ripe seeds of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) — and having those on your person can lead to legal problems beyond belief.

On a brighter note, if you have khus-khus in your garden, you can cut a few leaves in small pieces, soak them in distilled water or rainwater for three days or more, and you’ll have a very fragrant toilet water for personal use.

Khus-khus is also a foot soldier in the fight against erosion (the roots are actually called “soil nails”). To learn more about it, check the Web site www.vetiver.org — a great place to browse on a rainy afternoon.

The plant’s generic name refers to “vettiver,” an old native Tamil word, while “zizanioides” harks back to the genus Zizania (from “zizanion,” an old Greek name for a weed found growing in grain).

I first met this grass at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, where the brick pavement in one of the herb gardens held two big clay containers, each sporting the 6-foot, straight shafts of the grass pointing skyward. The individual blades were bent over about 3 inches from the tips, as if folded by human hands. As fall approaches, the light-green blades acquire bronzy-purple tints. When in bloom, the plants produce large erect panicles with slender whorled branches, but unless you live in the true South, plants in pots rarely flower.

Propagation is by division, as there are two forms of this grass — one sterile and one not. Nurseries usually market the sterile form. Khus-khus is hardy in USDA zones 9 and 10.

Granted, this grass will not overwinter in our mountain gardens. But if taken indoors before the fall frosts, it will do fine in a sun room, greenhouse or garage, as long as temperatures stay about 45 degrees and the soil is kept reasonably dry.

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