The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Sacred Tree Profile: Sassafras’ Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meaning August 20, 2017

The fall months are coming and the leaves here are just beginning to turn.  Apples are starting to ripen, nuts are starting to fall. And with a quiet walk through the fall woods, you might be lucky enough to see a sassafras (sassafras albidum) in her fall splendor. She will be decked head to toe in yellow, orange, red, purple, and magenta; an old sassafras tree in full fall foliage is certainly a sight to behold. With her wavy trunk and twisted branches, Sassafras makes no apologies about her ability to stand from the crowd.  Her four variable leaf patterns (mittens (right or left), single leaves, double mittens) help show her flexibility and charm. While Sassafras is not present in the traditional Ogham or other Western Magical Traditions as she is distinctly an American magical tree, she is a powerful tree with much to offer us.

 

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves\

Growth and Ecology

Sassafras has been called by many names and these names help teach us some of her power: auge tree, saxifrax, cinnamon wood, cinnamonwood, saloop, smelling stick, chewing stick, tea tree, winauk (Native American in Delaware and Virginia); Pauane (Timuca Indians); Kombu (Choctaw); and weyanoke (Algonquin).

 

Sassafras is typically a fairly small tree, growing 20-40 feet in height with a trunk 1-2 feet in diameter in the northern end of her range. In southern portions of its range, she can grow much larger, up to 100 feet high. Her wood is soft and light-colored with a faint aromatic Sassafras smell.  Her wood is brittle, coarse-grained, and rot-resistant although it is not very strong.  Typically, her wood has been commercially used for posts and lumber, but wood carvers also enjoy working with it.  Sassafras is dioecious, that is, the male and female flowers appear on separate trees. The females will eventually have fruits ripen (which occur around midsummer) whereas the male trees will not.

 

If you’ve ever met a mother sassafras in the forest, you will likely have seen her many babies surrounding her on the forest floor.  Sassafras reproduces through cloning through her lateral root system.   The mother tree, usually much larger, sends off rootlets that pop up new baby trees. The babies live by the nutrients of the mother tree and hope that the forest will open up enough to give them life and light to reach into the canopy. Sassafras is a sun-loving tree that needs at least part sun to thrive.  This is why you will often find her on the edges of forests, or in forest openings, but certainly not in dark forest spaces.

 

Sassafras and American History

Sassafras is a tree native to North America, and as such, played a critical role in the Western colonization of North America by the Europeans. Sassafras was the first “discovery” and export from North America back to the Old World, at a time when wood and wooden objects were central to everyday life.  In A Sampler of Wayside Herbs, Barbara Pond suggests that it was the hunt for Sassafras that actually inspired early Colonial exploration; for example, in 1602, Gosnold was very excited to discover  growing on Martha’s Vineyard Island.  In the 1600’s, massive amounts of ships called “Sassafras carriers” brought Sassafras wood and roots to the old world. In 1570, Thomas Hariot included in his report from Virginia, “Sassafras, called by the inhabitants Winauk, a kind of wood most pleasant and sweete smel, and of most rare vertues in physic for the cure of many diseases.” Eric Sloane in In Reverence of Wood writes about it as the “American Wonder Drug” and it grew in popularity such that it became known to cure any ailment or disease and as a genearl health tonic to keep one prime and to allow one to live a longer life. Even as early as 1577, a book by Dr. Monardus, a Spanish Physician, was translated into English titled, The Joyful News from the West Indies and it described the medicinal uses of Sassafras, which helped continue its prevalence of an import from the New World. In 1600, from a book by John Brereton, he reports sassafras selling for at least 3 shillings a pound; 1 ton was sold 336 british pounds (which was quite a lot in those days).

 

Because early Sassafras ships made it back to England without harm, Sassafras also quickly developed a reputation for being a “lucky wood” and a “protective wood”; Eric Sloane writes about how people soon were making many things of sassafras, such as spoons, cradle inlays, and bible boxes (to keep away evil spirits).  Sassafras wood was included in new ship designs to keep away evil spirits and prevent the ship from being wrecked.  Further, for over a century, it was considered to be able to extend life, cure all things, and drive away any sickness.  And so, from the time of early Western exploration in the new world, Sassafras was a highly regarded and sought commodity that offered healing and protection.

 

Safrole and Safety

Sassafras has a long history of use in traditional Native and Western medicine, but today, safrole, which is concentrated in the roots is considered “possibly carcinogenic” by the US Food and Drug Administration. Safrole is the primary aromatic ingredient in sassafras root bark; it was declared as a weak carcinogen on the liver by the FDA in 1976 and is still listed as such. Safrole is, notably, also present in lesser quantities in camphor, nutmeg, and mace.

 

In the herbal community at present, given this tree’s extremely long relationship with healing and humanity, a lot of folks sassafras occasionally without adverse effects.  A lot of folks in rural Appalachia also drink sassafras tea regularly, just as their ancestors drank sassafras tea in their spring tonics and root beers.  When I studied with Jim McDonald, he noted that Nutmeg contains almost as much Safrole as Sassafras and yet it wasn’t banned–he wondered if was banned because it can be made into ecstasy/MDMA in a lab.  He also noted that the studies took sassafras essential oil and injected it into rats–and no further research has ever been done (such as what happens to humans drinking tea as opposed to huge consumption of concentrated essential oil).

 

Matthew Wood in his New World Herbal notes, “Safrole is a neurotoxin and carcinogenic in isolation, but tests have shown that people who drink the tea for years actually have a reduced rate of cancer.  Still, the unadulterated sassafras root and root bark remain suspect” (315).  Further, in the Peterson Guide, it is noted that there is more carcinogenic substances in a can of beer than a can of traditional root beer with sassafras as the main ingredient.

 

Given the complexity of the issue, I would suggest that you read for yourself (looking at the original studies of which there were not many, and they were done on rats) and make up your own mind about whether or not you want to consume any tea on an occasional basis. I certainly enjoy it on a regular basis.

 

Note that the leaves of Sassafras, which are used in Creole cuisine as a thickener for soups, are perfectly safe and do not contain any safrole.

 

Harvesting Sassafras

Understanding Sassafras’ growth habit and reproduction through lateral roots is a great way to get copious amounts of root without damaging a large tree.  Sassafras seedlings can’t survive long in full shade, so they either need an edge or a forest disturbance (like a tree falling and making a clearing).  You can harvest some of the roots between a seedling tree and a mother easily.  I harvest roots of seedlings particularly in full shade areas–I know the seedlings won’t live long without a forest opening.

 

The other easy way to harvest sassafras roots is to wait for a storm to drop one–then you can simply saw them off and harvest all the roots.  The inner root bark is the most aromatic and medicinal, so even very large roots from a mother tree that has fallen would work very well.

 

The roots of small Sassafras trees can be used as is; the larger roots from a fallen tree have to have the tough, outer root bark peeled and removed prior to use.

 

Medicinal Uses of Sassafras

Sassafras Root Spring Tonic: As described above, the Sassafras was taken internally for a variety of healing purposes throughout the ages.  Traditional herbalism recognizes Sassafras as a “spring tonic” or “blood purifying”  or “blood thinning” herb and is used in the spring in quantity for this purpose.  In 1830, Constantine Rafinesque wrote, “The Indians use a strong decoction to purge and cleanse the body in the spring” (Quoted in Wood, 315, New World Herbs).   Wood notes that it “promotes clear thining in old age from good circulation to the brain, to improve the peripheral circulation to rid the joints of arthritic depositions, and to promote diuresis” (316).   Euell Gibbons in Hunting the Wild Asparagus notes that traditionally, Sassafras Root tea was made with maple sap water for spring tonic.  He noted that even in the 1950’s, when he wrote his book, that many folks still drink Sassafras tea “as a spring tonic, believing that it thins the blood and prepares the body to better stand the coming heat of summer.” Gibbons offers this medicinal tea: 3 tablespoons of honey, 3 tablespoons of vinegar (I would suggest a fire cider here) and 1 quart sassafras tea. Chill and serve as a spring tonic.

 

Blood and Circulatory System: Today, herbalists recognize sassafras root as a warming, spicy, and aromatic herb that functions as an alterative (tonic) for the liver with mild antiseptic qualities.  It has a specific action on the blood and circulatory system, stimulating blood flow and enhancing periphery circulation. It is also used to prevent heart attacks from thick, coagulated blood.  Jim McDonald notes that it has a specific action on the blood and circulatory system, stimulating blood flow and enhancing periphery circulation.  It can address circulatory congestion issues (such as cold fingers and toes, varicose veins, or pelvic circulatory issues).  Matthew Wood notes that could also be used to help increase circulation during a fever (along with boneset and elderflower).  It can function as an aphrodisiac if poor pelvic circulation is causing the reduction of the libido.  This is typically taken in tea form.  Because the aromatic qualities are the medicinal ones, Jim McDonald recommends a shorter boil (3-5 minutes) and then let the roots sit for a long time (like overnight) before consuming it.

 

Matthew Wood also notes a number of other Native American uses.  One such use as a fever remedy; they used the heartwood of sycamore, wild cherry bark, mountain mint, and Sassafras as fever remedies. Sassafras root bark was also Native American bruise remedy; they made an oil or powered the bark and added mullein for bruises, swollen faces, etc.  Native Americans also used the leaves to treat wounds by rubbing fresh leaves on an open wound.

 

Cooling and Demulcent Leaf: Sassafras leaf is cooling and demulcent and is traditionally used as a demulcent for coating and soothing scratchy and dry throats.  To do this, prepare boiling water and pour over dried leaves; let sit till it is cool and strain. Wood notes that, “The root bark is picked in the spring to thin the blood, the mucilage in the fall [leaves] to thicken it.”

 

Other Uses for Sassafras

The entire tree–wood, leaves, and roots–of Sassafras has offered humans a range of benefits.

 

Dyes: Sassafras root has been used as a nature plant dye. Typically, you get either a pink or a warm brown, depending on quantity.  The Pennsylvania Dutch used it often to dye linen or hemp that they grew. I haven’t used it much for this purpose as I’d rather make root beer and use other plants to obtain similar shades. Sassafras root is not always abundant to harvest and so when I do harvest it, I want to make the most use of it.

 

Flavoring: People have traditionally used Sassafras essential oi for flavoring gumdrops, drinks, and also for soaps. Today, you can purchase commercial preparations of Sassafras EO with the safrole removed that can still be used for this purpose.

 

Moth and Bug Protection:  Sassafras wood has been used to make boxes and chests for protection against bugs and moths (similar to Cedar). Traditionally, people even built henhouses out of it to keep insects out of the henhouse.  I’ve made my chickens’ perches out of sassafras and cedar with great results in this regard.  You can also us a bag of sassafras wood chips near your clothes to repel moths.

 

Culinary: Sassafras leaves (dried and powdered) are a wonderful thickener for soups and stews.  To harvest them, you can get them anytime they are mature throughout the summer.  Remove the stems and veins from the leaves, and then powder them up in a mortar or pestle.  You could also use a food processor, but I’d take it outside as it can produce a fine dust that you don’t want to breathe in in your house.  In Cajun cooking, file gumbo (file = Sassafrass) is a particular kind of gumbo that is thickened with the sassafras leaf.  The leaf offers a really nice flavor (when compared to flour or cornstarch) that is a bit sweet.  Here’s a link to a recipe I really like. 

 

Wild Food- Trailside Nibble and Salad: You can enjoy sassafras leaves fresh while on the trail.  They have a scent similar to fruit loops and a sweetness that is very nice and soothing.  You can also use the young leaves in salad.  Even in the winter and early spring, you can nibble on the winter buds.

 

Traditional Root Beer

The most traditional root beer here in the US uses sassafras as a primary ingredient along with black birch branches (or wintergreen).  Traditional Root Beer was not just used as a fine drink, but as a tonic–it was medicinal as well as enjoyable. Here’s a simple recipe I’ve used to make a great traditional root beer:

 

For this root beer, you make a simple syrup and then add seltzer/fizzy water to the end result. Simple syrup is made of equal parts of water and sugar (or another sweetener of your choice, like honey or maple syrup, both of which are more healthy).  You add ingredients to this and simmer them for a certain amount of time (depending on the nature of the ingredient).  Roots are typically simmered at least 20-30 minutes (with the lid on).

  1. In a saucepan, combine 2 cups water and 2 cups sugar/honey/maple syrup.
  2. Add 1/2 cup Sassafras roots and handful of black birch branches. I like to add juniper berries or star anise here as well (1 tablespoon each).
  3. Simmer the mixture, stirring often, for 20 minutes with the lid on. Be wary of boiling off too much water (and you can always add back a few tablespoons if necessary).
  4. Strain your mixture and pour into a mason jar. Let cool and store in the fridge (it will keep up to a month; you can also can it and/or freeze it).
  5. When you want to drink it, add about two tablespoons to seltzer water and enjoy.

 

Sassafras in the Native American Traditions

I couldn’t find a lot of information on the role of Sassafras in the Native American traditions.  I think it is likely due to the fact that the Eastern tribes were displaced early on, particularly in the areas that were the Native range of Sassafras.  Overall, it seems that Sassafras is considered a “cure all” for ailments, both physical and spiritual.  However, several good pieces of more detailed information are available:

 

Curse Removal. IN Sacred Medicines of the Cherokees, a book on Cherokee Shamanistic practices, Sassafras was part of a magical and medicinal treatment for children who were cursed by having the shadow of a bird fly over their mothers while they were still in the womb.  The medicine consists of a warm decoction of the bark of Sassafras, Flowering Dogwood, Service Berry, and Black Gum with the roots of two wild rose species.  The bark is always taken from the east side of the tree as are the roots (growing to the east).  The roots and barks are seeped in warm water for four days and then the child is bathed for four days and four nights with the decoction. At the end of each treatment, the Shaman then blows the decoction out of his mouth, showering the child, while the child keeps his/her hands out while a prayer is recited.  Then the child drinks a bit of the decoction.

 

Further, in Cherokee Plants, Hamel and Chiltoskey note that sassafras flowers were often combined with beans and then planted.  Its unclear why, but it might have been to protect them or help them grow in some way.

 

Safety. The Chocktaw Flood Myth, which shows up in various versions depending on the source, discusses how humans grew corrupted and the Great Spirit sent a flood to the land.  One man who as a prophet tried to get people to change their ways, but it was to no avail.  Eventually, the storms came and he was directed to build a raft of strong sassafras logs, which saved him and various others (the myth neatly parallels the Noah’s Arc myth).  Here, the Sassafras logs were the instrument of safety from the raging waters.

 

Sassafras, Taboos, and Fire. Tribes seem to have varying relationships with sassafras when it comes to fire. Sassafras is tabooed among burning.  For example, among the Cherokee, burning Sassafras is considered taboo (one white author reporting on the taboo notes it might be because sassafras pops when burned and could set things on fire). Another ethnographer notes that other tribes used it to start fires.

 

Sassafras in the Western Magical and Folk Traditions

Because Sassafras is a new world plant, the Western Magical tradition has very little to offer.  One exception to this is Hoodoo, which is a distinctly American magical tradition. In this tradition, Sassafras has a very specific use as being tied to wealth and money.  Cat Yronwode in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic suggests that sassafras can be used to bringing in wealth, good fortune, and overall success in business.  She notes that people have used it to make money mojos (for holding onto money) to sidewalk scrubs and carpet sprinkles to bring money into a business. I strongly suspect that this use of sassafras is directly related to the relationship that Sassafras had to colonization, exporting, and its status as a highly sought commercial commodity in the 160o’s and beyond.

 

However, if we delve into other kinds of folk magic practices, also tied to the commercialization and belief that Sassafras could cure any ill, we see Sassafras having a number of different roles, again, mostly concerning its “curative” properties. In Travels into North America, from 1772, P. Kalm writes, “Swedes wash and scour the containers in which they intend to keep cider, beer or brandy with water in which sassafras root or its peel has been boiled; which they think renders all those liquors more wholesome.” Further, the Pennsylvania Dutch also added sSassafras root to their apple butter or applesauce to enhance flavor; they also added pieces of sassafras root to dried fruit to keep out worms and add flavor–and possibly for other reasons (which was hinted at in an old cookbook I have here on the shelf!).

 

Sassafras Magic and Meanings

So if we take everything from the above, in a modern American Ogham or tree divination system, Sassafras may offer us the following overall themes:

 

Wealth and Financial Gain: Sassafras is certainly tied to financial gain and “keeping” wealth or resources (or bringing it into one’s life).  This is clear not only from the plant’s 400+ year old history here in the US, but also from the preservation of this focus in the Hoodoo tradition.

 

Good Health: Sassafras has broad healing powers, particularly associated with longetivity and having overall good health and a good life.  We see this first in the Native American herbal uses and lore, and that knowledge was clearly transferred into Colonial America as well as back to Europe.  Part of this good health aspect seems directly tied to consuming the root in various ways (in Gumbo, teas, etc).

 

Protection and Safety: Both in Native and in Western/Colonial lore, it is clear that Sassafras wood has strong protective qualities.  When this wood is shaped and used in various applications, it offers protection, not only from bugs or mites (as in the case of chicken coops) but also from stormy seas, travel, and general woes and ills.  We also see this tied into the idea that she might be used to remove curses in various ways (through a brew of her bark).

 

Sassafras is a wonderful and powerful plant ally who is certainly worth getting to know better–may her magic and mystery unfold within your own life!

 

Druid Tree Workings: Connecting with the Tree on the Outer Planes February 27, 2015

Tree climbing = one great way to commune!

Tree climbing = one great way to commune!

The trees themselves present much in the way of mystery teachings. This second post in my “Druid Tree Workings” series explores various methods for listening to the voices of the trees and developing methods of communication, like finding the face of the tree. These are various approaches that I have learned to use over time–and most have arisen through my intuition or have been taught as mystery teachings by the trees themselves.  This is my second post, on “outer” messages from trees–that is, messages that re physically present in the world around us (I will follow up this post next week with “inner ” messages).

 

Basic Courtesy when Working With Trees. I think that one of the greatest flaws inherent in our current society is the lack of respect for the sanctity of life that is non-human in nature. People see a forest and they think about how they can profit from it and rarely respect the right that that forest and its inhabitants have to life.  As long as one engages in the world with such an attitude, one will get little meaningful response from the trees.  So, one of the basic ways we can respect all life, and build a relationship with it, is by recognizing its inherent personhood. While this may be a radical idea to some, this animist philosophy has guided my thinking and spiritual work with plants, trees, animals, insects, rivers, and so on. And so, the idea is that you treat the tree with the same respect and courtesy that you would when approaching a human you don’t yet know–you wouldn’t just lean up against them or pull a piece of their hair.

 

  • Approach tree with respect, ask if you can sit and communicate. You will receive an answer one way or another–it might be a feeling, a quiet breeze, or some inner signal. Respect the tree if signs point to “no.”
  • Ask what, if anything, does the tree want in return.  I wrote about sustainable offerings before and suggested offerings might be way more extensive than just a little bit of food or wine. Traditionally, tobacco, corn paho/corn meal is a common offering in the Americas, but may or may not be appropriate for you to give.
  • Once you have permission, sit and commune using any of the techniques below.

 

Of course, once you’ve made friends with a tree, you should treat the tree in the same way you treat your human friends.  Physical contact and frequent visits strengthen bonds; doing nice things, etc. Now that we have some basic understanding of how to approach the trees, let’s look at some outward communication techniques:

 

Finding the “messenger trees.”  Sometimes, when you enter a forest, you may come across what I call “talking trees.” These are trees whose branches or trunks rub up against themselves or other trees, and when the wind blows, they creak and bang. These are the messenger trees, communicating audibly so that others can hear. I would suggest starting by finding such trees if you can, as they often have much to say, and may be appointed “speakers of the forests.” Listen audibly to their creaking, sit at the base of their trunk and let the creaking reverberate through your body. Put your ear to the trunk and hear the creaking through the tree. Listen, also, with your inner senses, and hear what they have to say. This method of communication obviously works better when there is wind.

 

Hearing the song of the wind. Another way to audibly hear a tree’s message is to listen to the wind and how it blows through the leaves, needles, branches, and so on. While you can do this standing anywhere near the tree, I find this works best when you can put your ear up to the bark and hear the wind blowing through the trees, the banging of the branches. Pay close attention, too, to the direction of the wind and its interaction with the tree. Pay close attention to what happens when you ask a question (either internally or spoken aloud).

Hearing the song in the wind...

Hearing the song in the wind…

 

Putting your Ear to the Tree and hearing “tree echoes.” A third way to audibly hear a tree’s messages is through putting your ear to the trunk of a tree on a windy or semi-windy day. Make sure your ear gets a good seal–so this is often easier on younger trees or those with smoother bark like beech or maple. What you will hear is based on a few factors. First, what you hear will change based on the tree itself–the different wood density between species creates different reverberations; the size of the tree also matters for hearing the tree echoes. The amount of wind, too, will determine what you hear. Finally, deciduous trees sound different depending on the season–bare branches bang against each other in ways that leafed out branches do not. The “tree echoes” have their own kind of music and can be quite pleasant, depending on the tree and the day.

 

Seeing the patterns of light and color. An easy way to see a tree communicate is to watch the wind and leaves in its branches, to watch the patterns of light and color play out on the forest floor. In the fall just around Samhuinn, you can walk through the forest in my region and discover the most beautiful patchwork pattern of fallen leaves and colors. All of these things have messages to share for the intuitive observer.

 

Understanding Trees and Timing. To speak with the trees, you also need to pay attention to the time of the year. I have found that some tree species are most active and engaged when the sap is running in the late winter/early spring or when they are in full foliage in the summer months. As winter approaches, all of the trees, even the conifers, slow down a bit. You can’t do much to commune with deciduous trees in winter—they are at rest, their roots growing deep, their energies focused on the telluric currents of the land. The confers, however, can still be worked with during this time. In fact, some Native American legends, including those of the Seneca people, tell that they conifers stay active all winter to hold the winter at bay. The myth goes that by keeping their needles on, the conifers, led by White Pine, defeat winter and ensure spring’s return. One conifer tree, the  tamarack pine, was weak and lost his needles in the winter. However the mighty oak, who holds his leaves till the spring even though they are brown and rattle in the wind, takes tamarack’s place and joins to aid in the battle for spring. My experiences in working with the trees are quite consistent with this legend. You can easily work with the conifers and the oaks during the cold winter months–the rest will likely be slumbering till their sap begins to run (in my region, Zone 6a in South-East Michigan, they usually slow down by Samhuinn and return around the Spring Equinox).

White Pine: Chief of Standing People

White Pine: Chief of Standing People–holding the winter at bay gracefully and powerfully!  Hail the white pine!

 

 

Tree Observation and Sensing. The final way of communing with the trees is a simple act of observation and using your five senses.  Get close to the tree-see how it smells. Stand out with a tree during the rain–watch how the water runs down the trunk, gets into the cracks, creates little bubbles, and softens and soaks bits of moss growing in the trunk. Look at the tree in moonlight, in sunlight, in fog. Observe the branches and leaves up close and far away.  Notice the patterns that the branches grow out in, how thick they are, how twisted or straight. Notice any effects the landscape has on the tree and its root systems (like wind, a cliff, etc).  You can learn so very much in this simple–and yet profound–act.  Visit the tree every day for a year, observe it in all its seasons and in all weather, and simply get to know it.

 

With these techniques, long-term friendships can develop with trees. There are trees that I go to when having a good day; trees that I visit when my day is bad and I’m in need of healing.  In my next post in this series, I’ll explore various “inner” ways of working with trees as we go deeper into the tree mysteries.

 

Don’t Bag Your Leaves: An Analysis of Nutrient Loss and Soil Depletion for Leaf Removal November 7, 2014

This is the time of year when the leaves all drop in their delightfully whimsical fashion.  And yet, it seems that fall is not an enjoyable time for many, especially if those leaves end up on the lawn. I’ve discussed problems with the practice of keeping a lawn before, and today, I’d like to look at our relationship to leaves and typical practices for dealing with leaves.  People spend quite a bit of their own energy and fossil fuel energy removing leaves from their lawns (raking, blowing, mowing, and so on).  These leaves seem to end up in three places for a typical American household in the sprawling urban and suburban areas:

 

  1. In bags on the side of the roads for “compost” (most common in my area by far)
  2. Blown onto the side of the road and left there and/or picked up by the city (more typical in urban settings)
  3. In a burn pile smouldering away (this also happens a lot where I live).

 

Some of the more radical folk, like permies and guerrilla gardeners the like, might end up composting their leaves in our gardens or otherwise keeping the nutrients on our properties; but this is a rather rare approach and one not practiced by the bulk of the American populace. Many of us who are radical gardeners go out seeking the bags of leaves left on the curb to bring additional nutrients to our properties (I do this every year).  However, not all of us have the benefit of composting or keeping our leaves–not raking, mulching, or composting leaves is illegal in some township or city mandates and also in many subdivisions throughout the US. And leaves aren’t often the only things found in the leaf compost bags–usually when I go out to collect, I find a good deal of other matter and live plants.  This year, at about 10% of the houses where I picked up leaves, I also found the remains of someone’s backyard garden (tomatoes) and at another 10% I found other kinds of food from trees just thrown away (walnuts, apples, acorns, pears, etc).

 

And so, today, I’d like to explore this practice a bit and its long-term impacts on soil health…and what we might do instead.

 

Leaves from the side of the road for my garden!

Leaves from the side of the road for my garden!

What’s Written on the Bag: Linguistic Framing of Leaves

When people talk about the leaves that drop from the trees in the fall, they often call it “leaf litter” or “yard waste.”  Looking at the brown paper bags that people buy to store their leaves in for pickup, they say “Lawn refuse” or “Yard Waste” or “Refuse” on the sides. We label the bags and then frame what we put in them as waste or refuse; something to be discarded.  So we are already creating a framework for seeing materials that come from our yards as “waste” rather than seeing the nutrients in the leaves as a valuable thing.

 

What’s in the Leaves: Nutrients Contained in Fallen Leaves

The other issue I’ve been pondering for some time is the nutritional content of the leaves, and how many nutrients leave a typical American lawn in suburbia each year when they are discarded.  I found a reasonable analysis about the nutrient content leaves here; their calculations are based on one ton of leaves (which, granted, is a lot of leaves).  This section presents a look at the nutrient content in leaves and how much is lost when we put them on the curb (or how much is gained by picking up someone else’s leaves).

 

According to the analysis above, 1 ton (2000 lbs) of leaves has the following:

  • 940 lbs of carbon
  • 20 lbs of nitrogen
  • 2 lbs phosphorus
  • 2 lbs potassium
  • 32.8 lbs calcium
  • 4.8 lbs magnesium
  • 2.2 lbs sulfur
  • Plus other nutrients and a great deal of organic matter (organic matter not calculated)

 

Before I get into my analysis of how much we lose by putting leaves on the corner, I have a few caveats.  First, this kind of analysis requires quite a bit of assumptions and estimations; I’ve done my best, but what I have found might be specific to my local area in South-East Michigan.  Second, I’m certain that leaf nutrition varies pretty widely based on the  soil profile of the region, the nutrients present or absent in the soil already, the types of trees, the weather for the year, and so on.  With that said, I do think even a rudimentary analysis, like the one I’m presenting, gives us some starting points.

 

Methods: On my trips out to get leaf bags from the side of the road this year,  I did some counting in my area to estimate the amounts and weights typical bags of leaves had.  I went out for three weeks and brought back 46 bags of leaves; I went out twice each week to different areas within a 3 mile radius of where I lived. I counted how many leaves people left on the curb and when I got back, I weighed them to get their average weight.  In a fourth week it rained, and while I collected bags, I did not weigh them because the water weight would have impacted my findings. I then did some simple math using the numbers above.

 

Amount of leaves per bag and per yard: Most leaf bags I picked up ranged from 8lbs – 22lbs, depending on whether or not they were shredded. Shredded leaf bags typically account for about 20% of the bags I pick up.  Even unshredded bags are often compacted and pretty heavy, especially if the leaves fell relatively flat or were slightly wet when they went in the bag.    The average for the bags was just above 10 lbs.  People in the suburban area where I go leaf hunting put out an average of 4.5 bags of leaves on collection day; some had many more, and most had been putting them out for a period of weeks. My estimate is that most families in my area put out at least 7 bags of leaves in a fall season assuming they have a few trees in their yard dropping leaves; this amounts to about 98 lbs of leaves (I’m going to round this to 100 lbs to make the math simple).

 

So for each 10 lb bag of leaves put on the curb, it has:

  • 4.7 lbs of carbon
  • .1 lbs of nitrogen
  • .01 lbs of phosphorus
  • .01 lbs of potassium
  • .16 lbs of lbs of calcium
  • .02 lbs of magnesium
  • .01 lbs of sulfur
  • And Iron, Zinc, and much, more.

 

That’s a lot of nutrients.  And that’s just the leaves–I don’t have any way of figuring out what whole tomato plants and other plants ripped up from the soil are also contributing, but I suspect these numbers are much higher.  And then, if homeowners are also removing their grass clippings all season long, that’s a whole other calculation to include.

 

There are alternatives!

There are alternatives!

 

What’s Left in the Soil:  Long-Term Removal of Nutrients and Inadequacy of Fertilization

Now one bag of leaves makes an impact, but perhaps a small one.  The problem is that one bag of leaves isn’t what’s being removed–this is about the long-term systematic removal of nutrients from our landscape.  As I was driving through a bunch of Detroit communities last weekend, what really struck me was the age of the houses.  Many of the houses I was looking at literally were 75 years, 100 years, or older.  In my research on dandelions, I discovered that typical lawn practices prevalent today really rose to popularity after World War II, which suggests that people haven’t been bagging up their leaves forever, but likely they have been doing it for some time.  So let’s assume that for the last 50 years, most citizens of Metro Detroit (or any other city or suburban area) have been removing their leaves from their property.  So if we take the numbers above and assume 100 lbs of leaves being removed each year, we end up with nutrient loss something like this:

 

Nutrient Loss over Time

Nutrient Loss for Fall Leaf Removal for 100 Years (all numbers in pounds)

 

These numbers are striking, but what is even more striking is the fact that I haven’t accounted for any other kinds of “yard waste” such as grass clippings (put out on the curb weekly or bi-monthly by many) or other kinds of yard compost that people don’t want.  I might do a case study of this at some point, but for now, we can see the potential for soil nutrient health decline.

 

I’d like to offer one other piece of evidence as well. My house was built in 1945, so my yard likely suffered the same fate for most of the last 70 years as well.  When I got at my homestead a few years ago, prior to putting in the garden, I ran soil tests.   These are exactly where the leaves (and lawn clippings) would have been taken from (and I knew from taking to my neighbors that the people who owned this house did such practices).  I found that the soil where I wanted to put in my garden was pretty much sand.  It had little organic matter and a P.H. of 8.2 (our PH is high in this area, but the lack of organic matter made it higher).  It had only 8 PPM of Phosphorus (considered extremely low), 22 parts per million of potassium (low) and magnesium of only 27 parts per million (extremely low).  To get my soil prepared for growing crops…what did I do? Went around and picked up everyone’s leaves, imported massive amounts of organic matter in the form of manure, compost, and this year, even a pile of seaweed from a local pond.  And now my soil tests are beautiful and my soil is rich and healthy (and much lower in PH thanks to the organic matter all of the leaves helped create).

 

What’s going back into the soil?  Not enough.

In a natural process, assuming no removal of nutrients, it takes 500 years or more to produce one inch of topsoil.  This gives you a sense, I think, of the enormity of the challenges that face us in regenerating landscapes with these destructive lawn practices.  But, you say, aren’t people putting things back into the soil?  Yes, and we’ll take a look at that next.

 

1) Plants can pull certain kinds of nutrients from the air; typically this is nitrogen and oxygen. So certainly, some nitrogen theoretically could be being brought back into the soil, although typical lawn ornamentals and grass don’t do this well.

 

2) Most nutrients are in the soil, and those nutrients are cycled through the dropping and decay of organic matter.  Trees and other plants (like Burdock, Comfrey, Dandelion), penetrate deep into the ground and pulling up nutrients to the surface, which they then deposit as leaves or dead plant matter.  But how many nutrients are down there for the taking?  If nutrients are systematically removed from the same spot over a 25, 50, or 100 year period, I suspect that at some point, the ground underneath will simply run out of those nutrients. I also have a theory (untested) that this is part of why we have so many plant and tree diseases.  We keep removing organic matter and nutrients from our landscapes in this form, through logging, etc, and those aren’t going back into our system.

 

3) People also often add fertilizers; but most commercial fertilizers focus only on the three macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.  All of the micronutrients (some of which are critical to plant and human health, such as magnesium or calcium) are not added.  Fertilizers also come in a water soluble form (nitrate) and cause substantial problems for our waterways (I am not going to spend the time today to describe soil ecology, but a good introduction to it is here).

 

4) Mulch is sometimes also added to select areas.  But wood mulches are very high in carbon and little else.

 

5) Some people do buy compost and add it in select areas (say, a garden) but this is in select areas; I don’t see people dumping compost all over their lawns to make up for the loss of nutrients.  More on this in my next post.

 

So even with the inputs, it seems likely that a substantial net loss in nutrients in the soil immediately surrounding most of our homes and communities due to the “composting” practices of leaves and grass clippings.

Concluding Thoughts

What concerns me about this analysis, if its in the ballpark range at all (and I have reason to believe it is) is that each year, the soil surrounding our homes and in our communities gets more and more depleted as we continue to remove nutrients from our soils systematically through fall leaves and grass clippings.  This leaves me with a few serious concerns:

 

1) More and more people are becoming interested in urban gardening, homesteading, and the like, and yet, if they want to dig up their backyard, they are facing soils with literally no nutrients, organic matter, or life in them (as I faced when I started my homestead).  If we all wanted to do this, where would all the nutrients come from?

 

2) We aren’t looking at a few places of depletion, but probably we are facing it with nearly every suburban and urban home in the US.  When we combine this with modern industrial farming practices that kill soil life and strip the soil bare, its a very worrying issue.

 

3) The systematic loss of particular kinds of nutrients is also concerning; in my herbalism course, we have spent a great deal of time talking about magnesium deficiency (which the bulk of Americans are suffering from) and deficiency in other micro-nutrients; interestingly, many of these showed up in the list of what was in fall leaves and being removed.  Even if you were to grow some veggies in your soil that you added some organic matter to, would there be enough magnesium and other essential nutrients for your own body’s needs?

 

4) Perhaps most worrying of all: if history has anything to teach us, the widespread degradation and depletion of soil and other resources leads to a civilization’s collapse.  Combining this with many other ecological challenges suggests the widespread and systematic need for radical change.

 

I’ll elaborate on these concerns and what we might begin to do about this in my next blog post, which will discuss the concept of restoration agriculture and further discuss permaculture design.

 

Fall Leaves and the Druidic Garden: Leaves as Compost and Mulch November 12, 2010

Filed under: compost,Leaves — Dana @ 10:01 pm
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With the passing of Samhain, most of the leaves here in Michigan are now off the trees.  As I bike through my neighborhood or visit surrounding communities, I am always amazed to see people bagging up all of those leaves in the brown “compost” bags and leave them by the side of the road or (worse) burning them in the backyard.  Hold on for a minute!

What my illustrious neighbors bagging the leaves up and leaving them for the waste disposal company may not realize is that those same leaves, yard trimmings, and other waste are sold right back to them in the spring time when they want a little compost or rich hummus for their garden.  Unfortunately, this process is damaging on the environment because: A) fossil fuels are used to transport the leaves to and from their destination; high-powered composting facilities often use additional fossil fuels to automatically turn and process leaves; and finally, they have to be packaged back up and sold to the end consumer–sometimes across counties or states.  Another serious benefit is that the nutrients of the leaves–nutrients that would leech back into the soil if the leaves were left on the ground to decompose naturally–continue to be removed each year as the leaves are put on the curb.  This loss of nutrients in the soil eventually causes most to go out and buy petrochemical fertilizers (which contribute to substantial water pollution).

Burning those little leaves is even worse, however!  Leaf burning destroys many valuable nutrients (although some nutrients are retained in the ash, to be fair), substantially contributes to air pollution, and can cause trouble for health of asthmatics and others.  Not to mention the risk of fires spreading out of control.

Alternatives exist to bagging and/or burning leaves!

Leaves are a precious and valuable resource, and can be used in a multitude of ways in your own gardening practice: as a lawn mulch, compost, as a soil enricher, and as a garden mulch.

This year, I’ve used leaves in several ways to enhance my druidic gardening practice.

Directly in the Garden Beds. First, I used leaves as a basic ingredient of my “raised bed sheet mulching” approach (which I haven’t yet written on but plan on writing on soon).  Leaves were added right to the bed in the fall and will compose over the winter, adding much needed nutrients and humus to my sandy soil.

Leaf Composting. I also built myself a simple leaf composter out of some rusty wire fencing I found in the weeds on the side of the property.  I created a sphere with the wire and weighted the bottom down with some rocks.  Next, I layered about 6 inches of leaves with an inch of soil and/or manure and as I layered it, I wet the whole thing down.  If you layer it in this fashion, the leaves are less likely to mat.  If you wet it down, composting will happen much faster!  I have read that you can also use sacks for leaf composting or even build your own large bin.  The key is to make sure that your leaves don’t blow away before they are composted.  Now that I’ve done this work, I will wait and see what happens in the spring–and how far along my leaves have composted.  Leaf composting is super-easy, and you can use the composted leaves as an excellent soil conditioner or garden mulch.

Mulching. One of the most important lessons that I have learned in my short time on this property is that mulch is your friend.  I planted a number of trees and heavily mulched them–and was amazed to find that even after a week or more of dry weather, when I stuck my hand into the mulch, the roots were still damp.  If you want to use leaves as mulch, you can compost them partially (to avoid matting, again) and then spread them thickly on whatever it is you want to mulch.  The leaves will eventually decompose and will release their nutrients into the soil. In this way, you are mimicking the forest’s natural cycle of falling leaves eventually turning into fertile soil (we speed this up a bit with composting).

Do be aware that certain leaves may change the PH level of your soil.  Pine needles and oak leaves are particularly acidic (but this makes them incredibly useful for say, blueberries or paw paw trees!).  I have been using pine needles as a wonderful mulch on my newly planted blueberry bushes.

If you have a lawn mower, you can also mulch your leaves directly onto your lawn.  Apparently they make mowers just for mulching, but I’ve never seen them so I can’t write more on that process.

This is my first year using leaf composting, so I’ll report how things went in the spring!