Yes, you read that right.
Warning: Images of placenta ahead.
When I was pregnant, the placenta — or rather, what to do with it post-birth — was a popular topic among my friends who already had babies or were expecting babies. Some had their placentas encapsulated. Most left them at the hospital. I was on the fence about mine: to eat or not to eat?
(For a good laugh, Google placenta recipes. They do exist! … for everything from placenta smoothies to placenta stew. A writer from The Guardian even made placenta tacos with his wife’s afterbirth.)
I’m not a particularly crunchy person, and the benefits of placenta encapsulation are anecdotal at best. But I’d read somewhere that burying a placenta was a common ritual in many cultures around the world, and that piqued my interest enough to look into the practice.
Turns out, the native Hawaiians do it. The Navajo Indians do it. The Indonesians, Cambodians, Costa Ricans, and Bolivians do it. The Maori do it, believing it reinforces the child’s bond with the land. (In fact, the Maori word for placenta, whenua, also means land.) Though they all have their own special rituals involving burial of the “tree of life,” as the placenta is often called, the common thread among many of them was the act of linking past, present, and future — returning the remains to Mother Earth to nurture another life or protect the present life. Clearly not everyone’s cup of tea, but a thoughtful tradition nonetheless to honor a birth as well as to enrich the earth.
When I pitched the idea to my husband, he thought I was joking at first, then he felt a little (or a lot) squeamish when he realized I wasn’t. The placenta nourished our child for nine months, I offered in defense, why couldn’t it continue to nourish another form of life?
After all, it wasn’t any different than planting fish heads in our raised beds, and my family was known for burying all kinds of kitchen remnants in their garden when I was growing up: shrimp shells, fish bones, fish guts. This was essentially free fertilizer. With my placenta, I would know exactly where it came from — it was organic fertilizer at its purest. The idea seemed unconventional, but it certainly wasn’t outlandish.
The hospital allowed us to take the placenta home after I delivered. I simply signed a waiver stating I knew the risks of handling a biohazard, and the placenta was wrapped up and refrigerated during my hospital stay. I thought it would be vacuum-sealed or wrapped in a biohazard bag, but quite the contrary — the nurse handed me the placenta, double-bagged in plastic the way the butcher at the Mexican market wrapped up a lump of meat. Surprising and comical, to say the least.
We placed the placenta in a cooler for the drive home, then refrigerated it for a few days until I was ready to deal with it. First, I made a print of the placenta. If you’ve ever looked at one in person, you might notice the side that faces the fetus resembles a tree. The veins look like branches and the umbilical cord forms the trunk — this is how the placenta earns its moniker as the tree of life, and in many cultures and historical references, a tree of life is often associated with motherhood.
I laid down a dog training pad on the kitchen counter, spread the placenta out so that the fetal side was facing up, then gently pressed a sheet of bristol board over it. It took a few tries, but the resulting imprint (yes, in blood) is a beautiful abstraction of a tree. It’s not as gory as it sounds, and one day, I’ll have it framed for Gemma’s room. I think she’ll appreciate learning what it is and how it came to be.
(Our friend’s kids actually saw the print shortly after I made it. We tried to explain what it was, but I think it’s a really strange and difficult concept for a five-year-old boy to wrap his mind around!)
After making my art print, I double-bagged the placenta in Ziplocs and put it in the freezer until we figured out where to plant it. We’re currently renting, so we didn’t want to plant it out in the yard. One day we’ll move out of this house, and possibly out of California, so we wanted to be able to take this memory with us. We wanted a tree that represented this stage in our lives and paid homage to Gemma’s California roots, one that could happily live in a container, perhaps indefinitely.
We eventually settled on a Moro blood orange tree. (A blood orange tree seems fitting, no?)
And so one afternoon, we prepped an 18-inch ceramic pot with a few inches of soil and placed the frozen placenta on top of it. We said a few words of gratitude, covered the placenta with several more inches of soil, and finished potting up the orange tree.
It hangs out in our courtyard with all the other container citrus, and has been thriving the past few weeks. We can’t wait for the day it starts blooming!