Human Flower Project
Thursday, January 03, 2008
Human Hair in the Potting Shed
A U.S. company is importing human hair from China and India as a gardening aid, reviving an old idea. But can it overcome racial history?
A new herbicide?
Photo: Rapunzel’s Delight
A scalp-tingling gardening idea called SmartGrow is garnering endorsements across the Southeast U.S. The product is a thin mat made entirely of human hair and marketed as a deer repellent, organic fertilizer, and herbicide.
‘‘In the beginning, we were saying, `Human hair? What is this?’‘’ asked Luis Naranjo, owner of Octavio Taylor Nurseries in Dade County, Florida. According to Tere Figueras Negrete’s report in the Miami Herald, Naranjo “now expects 80 percent of his nearly 1 million plants, like ground orchids,… will be cozily blanketed with the mats by this spring.” He says that the hair mats “saved him $45,000 in pesticides last year, and $200,000 in labor.”
Plant pathologists at the University of Florida also like the results they see, as does a major heirloom tomato grower in Georgia.
Old timey gardeners have long known about the benefits of gardening with human hair, folk knowledge that’s trickled down (up?) through institutions like agricultural extension programs. The State of Missouri’s extension office website, for example, advises gardeners:
“Human hair is a repellent that costs very little but has not consistently repelled deer. Place two handfuls of hair in fine-meshed bags (onion bags, nylon stockings). When damage is severe, hang hair bags on the outer branches of trees with no more than 3 feet between bags. For larger areas, hang several bags, 3 feet apart, from fence or cord around the perimeter of the area to be protected. Attach the bags early in spring and replace them monthly through the growing season.”
To keep deer away, the Illinois Walnut Council also recommends human hair, as well as “sulphur/egg mixtures, large cat feces from a zoo, and even human urine.” (Hair cuttings begin to look like the easy way out.)
The SmartGrow mat, of human hair
The idea for SmartGrow originated in a Huntsville, Alabama, hair salon, when stylist Phil McCory saw images of Alaskan otters covered with oil after the Exxon Valdez spill and began to experiment with human hair as oil-absorbent material. Blair Blacker bought the patent from McCory and tried selling his discovery to the petroleum industry (not interested); then learning of the folk gardening customs, he shifted his focus to plants.
Where did the 30,000 pounds of tresses in Blacker’s Florida warehouse come from?
“SmartGrow relies on two hair brokers—in China and India—to procure the hair, which is boiled in 120-degree water, dried, loaded onto 40-foot boats and shipped via waterway to a port city in China.” At a factory in Zhaoyuan, the hair is piled onto “an old-style needle-punch machine, formerly used to make carpets. A hopper blows air through the hair to loosen it, and the strands are then woven into a loose felt-like mat of mostly dark and shiny follicles, with the occasional gray strand peeping through.”
Shorn hair dries in the sun in India
Photo: India Hair Weave Technique
Negrete’s article notes that gardening with human hair involves “an admitted yuck factor,” something SmartGrow fans try to dismiss fast, by changing the subject to manure. But for us, the aversion goes deeper.
The thought of applying human body parts to utilitarian ends brings a shudder, even for those who advocate embryonic stem cell research and organ transplants. And the use of human hair in particular revives grisly images from the end of World War II. When Soviet forces liberated the death camp at Auschwitz, in January 1945, they found seven tons of human hair. Shorn from those imprisoned and killed in the Holocaust, these body parts purportedly were to be shipped back to Germany and woven into cloth.
Blair Blacker says that the raw material for SmartGrow mats comes from India and China, because it’s hair less likely to have been dyed or otherwise chemically damaged. Surely that’s so. (There’s also an interesting photo essay by Adriene Jaeckle showing tonsure—ritual hair cutting—at a temple in India.) But it seems obvious, too, that the trade in human hair is primarily a transaction between people who want fatter vegetables and people so desperate for money they’ll sell off parts of themselves.
Maybe that’s no more degrading than working in a call center or weaving rugs, but maybe it is. The images from 1945 give us a long pause.