Psychotropic Plants

Sleepy Grass | A Grass Species with a Drowsy Secret

Sleepy grass (Achnatherum robustum), is a perennial grass native to the US. Not to be confused with ‘shy’ grass (the plant that is sensitive to touch and folds its leaves when poked), which is also occasionally known as sleepy grass. As the name suggests, sleepy grass contains some powerful active compounds…

What are the active compounds in Sleepy Grass?

The compounds that put the ‘sleepy’ in sleepy grass could be one of two active chemicals. Sleepy grass naturally contains diacetone alcohol. As a chemical, it’s used as a solvent and often used in wood stains, thinners, and textile production too. It’s produced synthetically and not harvested from sleepy grass itself. Ingesting or inhaling diacetone alcohol can make you drowsy and also cause irritation in the respiratory system.

Like many grass species, sleepy grass is also susceptible to ergot fungus. Ergot fungi produce a powerful compound known as ergoline. When ingested it can have a sedative and mild psychoactive effect. This means that any humans or animals ingesting ergot infected seeds could experience severe drowsiness and even mild euphoria.

A sleeping cow | Photo by Ben Rudiak-Gould on Wikimedia Commons

Does Sleepy Grass have medical potential?

Ergoline has been widely studied, and actually inspired the synthesis of LSD. While sleepy grass has a traditional history of use in Native American culture, it is very rarely used as a modern-day herbal.

Traditional medicine

The effects of sleepy grass were known to Native Americans in the midwest plains. Some records suggest that single sleepy grass seeds were given to babies to help soothe colic symptoms.

Sleepy grass illustration | Image from Wikimedia Commons

Cultural uses of Sleepy Grass

Several stories suggest that sleepy grass was occasionally used for criminal purposes in the wild west. In Ben K. Green’s book, “Horse Tradin’”, he references an account of sleepy grass use. A horse trader used sleepy grass to make a horse seem more docile and broken in. It later turned out that the untamed horse had actually been fed sleepy grass.

Mountaineers and farmers trading mules and horses | Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Another legend states that several railroad workers were killed after their horses grazed on sleepy grass. As they clashed the next morning with Native Americans, they were unable to get away as their horses were drowsy and immobile.

It’s a story that has a few similarities to several railroad workers who were poisoned with death camas. In an attempt to stop railroad expansion, Native Americans sold death camas bulbs to unsuspecting workers.

As the tale of the effects of sleepy grass spread through European colonizers, it was eventually used by cattle ranchers. Some stories suggest it was fed in small quantities to cattle to make them easier to herd and manage.

What does Sleepy Grass look like?

Sleepy grass has tall erect stems, usually reaching 2-3 feet. It grows in bushy clumps with very minimal roots. The seed head and nodes where leaves branch off often have a hairy appearance. The flower head is typical of many grass species with a panicle that develops into spikelets.

Dry patch of land with sleepy grass | Photo by Patrick Alexander on Wikimedia Commons

Where does Sleepy Grass grow?

As a grass species, sleepy grass favors open plains, meadows, and woodland edges. You’ll usually find it in dry areas and soil with good drainage, for example, hillsides or even semi-desert grassland. It’s common in the midwest plains and as far south as New Mexico.


For such an inconspicuous plant, sleepy grass has had some unusual uses throughout history. At one point sleepy grass was a hazard to cattle and horses grazing in wild meadows and fields. In high doses, it could make cattle appear to freeze on the spot, and even cause death. Today, however farmers and ranchers rarely encounter any issues with sleepy grass.

Featured Image: Sleepy grass growing in New Mexico | Photo by Patrick Alexander on Wikimedia Commons

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