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Nourishing our roots: what placenta planting means to our family

I can’t honestly remember why my wife Susie and I decided to bury our son Hunter’s placenta in a special place, other than it seemed the right thing to do at the time. I do remember knowing straight away where our little ceremony should take place: beneath a magnificent and ancient puriri tree on my family’s farm near Whangarei. But I also remember feeling slightly awkward about the whole thing. Here we were, two Pakeha New Zealanders detached from any kind of spiritual or cultural traditions around childbirth, searching for a way to anchor the experience to our past, present and future.

How one family has created their own ritual, tying them to the land and to their ancestors.

I can’t honestly remember why my wife Susie and I decided to bury our son Hunter’s placenta in a special place, other than it seemed the right thing to do at the time.

I do remember knowing straight away where our little ceremony should take place: beneath a magnificent and ancient puriri tree on my family’s farm near Whangarei. But I also remember feeling slightly awkward about the whole thing. Here we were, two Pakeha New Zealanders detached from any kind of spiritual or cultural traditions around childbirth, searching for a way to anchor the experience to our past, present and future.

Mum & babyThis Christmas, we returned to do it for our second son, Jake. And this time, it all made much more sense.

Christmas Eve marked the 90th anniversary of my great-grandfather’s arrival on our farm, and it’s been in the Easterbrook family ever since. I tend to think of it as something other than ownership. It’s our family accepting temporary guardianship over that particular piece of land. With the Britain of our ancestors now generations behind us, and our culture now something of a New Zealand hybrid, the farm has become our turangawaewae, our place to stand.

While Hunter and Jake may never live there, I want them to grow up feeling a real connection to the farm. By burying both boys’ placentas there, we hope we’ve symbolically marked a connection to the past that will help them define themselves in the future.

We felt less awkward about the whole placenta-burying business this time because we had been given a Capceco Biodegradable Placenta Capsule, from Birth to Earth. “Woah”, we thought, “we’re not the only crazy people doing this, if someone’s made a special product for it”.

Our only regret was not being given one earlier: for nearly nine months Jake’s placenta had sat in the back of our freezer, in a two-litre ice cream tub labeled DO NOT EAT. Bringing it home from the hospital in a purpose-made capsule would have felt a lot more dignified.

With the Capceco, the placenta is placed within a cornstarch bag, then another, and then within a recycled card capsule. The whole thing is buried, and is 100 percent biodegradable. Having gone through the process twice, I can definitely say having something to bury the placenta in lent some ceremony to the occasion. And to be honest—the placenta is a life-giving miracle of biology, but it’s also pretty ugly. You don’t really need to see one to honour it.

Hunter

The Capceco also comes with a lovely picture book, Your Tree, which your child can keep and read when they get older. It’s a nice inclusion, but it also assumes that you’re planting a tree in the same spot, to be nourished by the placenta as a living commemoration of the birth. We weren’t planting anything, but we had a good reason for that.

Sitting on the highest ridge of my family farm, shielded on all sides by native bush, is a massive puriri known to us all as simply The Tree. It’s huge, and it’s ancient. Six adults linking hands might just be able to encircle it. I’ve tried to research tree aging in order to estimate how old it is, and I’m fairly confident that it must have stood there for at least 2,000 years.

Being in The Tree’s presence is humbling. Hokey as it sounds, you can almost feel it radiating life. To me, it’s the breathing, pulsing heart of the farm and the true guardian of the land that surrounds it. There is a sacredness to the clearing it stands in, and I couldn’t have imagined burying Jake and Hunter’s placentas anywhere else.

The Tree
So, this Christmas we hiked our way up to the ridge again. Susie carried Jake in a front pack; I carried a spade and our capsule; Hunter, nearly six, led the way. In the shade of The Tree’s vast canopy I dug a hole and we placed the capsule into it. We all made a wish for Jake’s future, and Hunter decorated the spot with a peacock feather he found nearby. We showed him the stone that marked where his placenta was buried, and we talked about life. About how the placenta fed him inside mummy; about why some places are special; about how standing under this amazingly old tree made him feel. It was a magic little time for our family, outside of the rush of everyday life.

These days, unless we have strong ties to a religion or a distinctive culture, we’re deprived of rituals that touch the sacred and the spiritual. While our placenta burying ritual has been a strictly ‘make it up as you go along’ affair, we hope it will add something to our boys’ lives that might otherwise have been missing. And judging by the existence of Birth to Earth’s Placenta Capsule, there are an increasing number of other people looking to do the same for their families too.

What if You don’t have a special tree?

When Good asked for reader volunteers to try the Capceco placenta burial capsule, we were amazed at the sheer number of readers who have a placenta (or two!) filling up their freezer. All were keen to finally bury their child’s placenta, but the many who rent or have plans to move house in the next few years didn’t want to bury it in a garden they see as temporary. And sadly, not many of us are lucky enough to have an amazing 2,000-year-old tree to call home!

So if you don’t have a special tree, what are your options?

  1. Does your region have a ‘Trees for Babies’ programme? These are tree-planting days run by some local councils, giving parents a tree to plant in a public park to commemorate the birth of their child. Although some programmes don’t allow the planting of a placenta beneath the tree (Waitakere City Council disallowed it after a local dog managed to unearth one placenta), others do—and you may find there’s an unofficial ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy! If you do bury your placenta in a public park, bury it very, very deep.
  2. Plant your placenta tree in a large pot. Good gardening columnist Paul Thompson says planting your placenta in a pot is a good option, provided you choose a big enough pot. It’s important that the placenta and any burial box has broken down by the time the tree’s roots get to it. Here are Paul’s planting guidelines:
    – Choose a large pot, with a minimum height of 450mm. Bigger is better; 600mm is ideal!
    – Choose a strong tree or shrub that likes a rich, nutritious soil. Citrus such as lemon or mandarin are a good choice.
    – Begin with a 50mm layer of drainage material, such as gravel or broken terracotta pots, in the pot.
    – Add at least a finger-length deep layer of compost (the microbiology will help break down the placenta). Adjust this layer to suit the depth of your pot: go deeper for a bigger pot.
    – Place your placenta box in the pot. Dampen it down, let the water soak in, then push down the box edges with your trowel to remove air pockets, or it will collapse later and may cause air pockets that can harm your plant’s progress.
    – Add another finger-length deep layer of compost and/or soil on top of the placenta box. Again, add more if you have a deeper pot; 150mm is ideal.
    – Now place the rootball of your tree or shrub on top. Fill around the edges with soil and firm down.

    By the time your tree or shrub’s roots have made it to the depth of the placenta, it should be nicely decomposed and broken down so the minerals have become available to the roots of your growing plant.

  3. Choose a plant appropriate for cutting or division. If a pot is not an option, you can choose a plant for your garden that offers the possibility of later re-location, by taking a cutting or dividing the plant by its roots to re-plant when you move. The plant will have grown with the help of the placenta’s nutrition, so it will remain a living legacy of your pregnancy and childbirth. You can take cuttings from a wide variety of plants: azaleas, daphne, buxus, roses, pohutukawa, rata, fruit trees and philadelphus, to name but a few! For more options suitable for your area, ask at your local garden centre.

Paul Thompson and Annabel McAleer

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