A Southern California Vetiver Grass Story

Thomas Stickler. The Casa Colina Horticulture Therapy and Training Program, Pomona, California

Our introduction to vetiver grass began five years ago with a single clump of an unknown plant taken from the Los Angeles Arboretum.  Jean Cozart, a founding member of the Herb Society of America, identified it as a variety vetiver called "Sunshine."  She also provided valuable information about vetiver and the network promoting its use.  Since then, thousands of vetiver slips have been produced by root division, proving a great success for our horticultural therapy program.  Casa Colina's Horticultural Therapy and Training Program offers vocational training and personal growth to people with developmental disabilities or acquired brain injuries.  As a non-profit organization currently operating Casa Colina Farms in Pomona, California, we sell plants in our nursery, work as contracted landscapers, and prepare herbal products grown from plants in an organic farm, among many other activities.  For our horticultural therapy program, vetiver is an excellent plant.  It is hardy and durable, needs little maintenance or tending, and propagation is easy--all characteristics that make a successful plant for an horticultural therapy program.

Displaying vetiver's useful application along an embankment at Cal Poly Pomona's Land Lab is our biggest success with vetiver.  Four years ago, the hillside along a road at Land Lab was an all too common Southern California occurrence: heavy erosion, scanty vegetation, and an aesthetic blight.  Chunks of the slope would fall into the road.  Without topsoil or extensive irrigation, we planted vetiver into the shale embankment, wondering how the vetiver would take.  The vetiver thrived.  Not only did erosion cease, but other benefits occurred.  Seedlings of California Black Walnut germinated in pockets of rich organic matter created by the vetiver.  Now the embankment, covered by lush vetiver and young trees, watered only by natural rainfall, stands as a testament to vetiver's usefulness.

Other successes occurred at the Spirit Mountain Retreat Center and Lincoln Elementary School.  At both sites, vetiver  prevented erosion and absorbed excess water.  A success we hope for the future is our plan (in development) with a local conservation district of developing a demonstration site to promote and increase awareness about.

The problems we have encountered deal with political issues surrounding vetiver grass, not any horticultural problem.  There is a distinct lack of awareness concerning vetiver.  A solution to this problem, namely a demonstration site at a government agency or university, raises another problem.  For the moment neither place wants to invest the resources into a demonstration site until vetiver has a significant reputation.  A classic Catch-22 ensues because vetiver will remain relatively unknown until a demonstration site is developed, yet a site for vetiver won't be developed until vetiver is more widely known.  Another concern in our area is the lack of knowledge about preserving, restoring, and regenerating Southern California native plant habitats with vetiver grass assisting the establishment of natives.  Again a solution to this problem would be a demonstration site.  A final problem is the lack of funding, resources, and research needed to promote vetiver on a commercial scale and to develop demonstration sites for combating the other problems we have identified, the biggest problem being the lack of awareness about vetiver.

New applications of vetiver technology would also help raise awareness of vetiver's benefits.  As we said earlier, the durability and resilience of vetiver make it ideal for an horticultural therapy program. The processes of cutting back vetiver, digging it out of the ground, dividing the plant into smaller clumps, and potting or replanting the resulting "next generation" takes time, engages different skills and problem solving, and allows a multitude of variously challenged people with differing capacities to be involved in propagating vetiver, fostering not only higher self esteem but also encouraging team work.  We think more horticultural therapy programs should use vetiver.

Another new use for vetiver is in local schools.  Teaching young children about vetiver is an excellent way to raise awareness and promote vetiver use in the community.  Parents and adults will become exposed to vetiver more if they see it planted in the school's landscape or in a school garden where it can serve a variety of functions like acting as a screen or to soak excess water from low areas of the garden.  Also vetiver can be used as an integration zone between non-native and native interface areas.  Vetiver eases the transition between the two groups of plants.  

For specifically southern California, research needs exist in testing vetiver at flood basins, freeway embankments, and landfill sites.  Further research is need on the economic potential of vetiver in horticultural therapy programs.  The money generated from our program is redirected back into the program to purchase new tools and equipment, further develop our site, and provide greater opportunities for people with disabilities.  Finally the last research need in southern California we have identified deals with discovering the optimal container size and soil for growing vetiver in pots.  One gallon compared to four inch containers seem to produce vetiver that becomes established easier, but more data is needed.

  In closing we offer some final notes and observations on the state of vetiver technology.  Currently in southern California an authoritative, either governmental or academic, multidisciplinary push to promote and research vetiver grass is needed most.  A significant aspect of this focus would be a successful demonstration site displaying various applications of vetiver.   Envision an annual conference, held at the demonstration site, to raise awareness in Southern California about vetiver.  The highlight of the conference would be a tour of the site so people can gain as much first hand knowledge as they can.  We think this would quell any objections raised by people skeptical about non-native plants being brought in to solve our area's various ecological problems, like erosion.  All in all, vetiver's potential is limited only by our imagination.