Increasingly people are finding simple solutions to modern problems with ancient plants. Nature has the answers we seek yet it is often the last place that we look. Over the past years I have spent an increasing amount of time in Hawai'i where humans have a long history of working in concert with nature while efficiently utilizing finite resources on the islands. This microcosm is both valuable to people living on islands but to all of us everywhere as we approach global limits imposed by unsustainable lifestyles. I recently had the pleasure of learning the many uses of vetiver, an ancient grass which is also known as Chrysopogon Zizanioides.
The quickest way to fall in love with this plant is to smell it, usually in an essential oil or body balm. You have probably smelled it before as it is commonly a base note in most major perfumes and colognes. For those who are going for a more natural scent vetiver is intoxicating when mixed with hints of cedarwood. Though it is great for beauty products it has much more profound and affordable applications in cleaning our soil, and water.
The roots of vetiver grow deep and actually pull heavy metal residue out of the soil, including lead, arsenic, mercury, selenium, and cadmium. These metals can be present in your well water also. A big issue on the islands is phosphorus and nitrogen that flows into the ocean killing the delicate coral reefs. Wastewater, farming, golf courses and home fertilizers are the main culprit and the solution is right under our nose.
Commercial dairy uses antibiotics for their cattle which also leaches into the soil and the water table. Golf courses dump massive amounts of fertilizer on the ground to keep the grass green, the majority of which is not absorbed and runs off. Homeowners also tend to over use fertilizers, and many homes have outdated septic systems that leak with abundant rainfall that is common on the islands. All of these common issues are addressed by planting vetiver grass, and best of all it also helps with soil erosion.
Vetiver plants were grown for 60 days in a greenhouse in Tetracycline (antibiotics) contaminated hydroponic system. Preliminary results show that complete removal of tetracycline occurred within 40 days in all TC treatments. -Phytoremediation potential of vetiver grass [Chrysopogon zizanioides (L.)] for tetracycline
A few miles north of Hilo on the Hamakua Coast in the northern and eastern side of the Big Island is Vetiver Farms Hawai'i. Jason Fox, Founder and licensed landscape contractor is providing valuable applications of vetiver for use in Hawai'i and internationally. Though he is one of only a few certified vetiver technicians in the United States, he is not alone as there is a growing global network dedicated to educating people about this important plant. Jason's work has taken him all over the world, having trained the highway department in Tahiti to help with erosion control, and consulting about beach stabilization in Thailand. The King of Thailand, a big fan of vetiver, as well as Vetiver Network International awarded Jason for his work in Hawai'i.
The Vetiver Network International (TVNI) promotes the worldwide use of the Vetiver System (VS) for a sustainable environment particularly in relation to land and water.
I had the pleasure of spending some time at the Vetiver Farm and learning about their history, educational outreach, and visions for the future. With scattered cabins and views overlooking the ocean the farm is home to a wide community of local workers, artists, and musicians including people like Nahko from Medicine for the People. After a day of bundling vetiver, harvesting lemon grass, eucalyptus or distilling the oils for natural cleaners and beauty products everyone gathers in the kitchen to make a group meal. After dinner maybe a bon-fire with music and spirits to watch the moon rise over the ocean. Embedded in this lifestyle is an ethic of working hard, playing harder and looking to the ecological and human community for inspiration as well as solutions.
"The success of vetiver as a moderation plant gained significant attention from the works of Don Miller. In 1999 and 2000, Miller took a group of devoted volunteers into the southernmost area of Vanuatu, where they hand-planted vetiver in the troughs of gullies, in an area that had lost its shell fishing and whose reefs had been destroyed. Within 10 years of vetiver's germination, the shell fishing industries were back and the once-dead reefs were again thriving. Today, these types of success stories are countless across the globe." -Jessica Kirkwood, Keola Magazine
This is one of many stories that rich with inspiration for creative ways to address problems we are facing that threaten our water and the soil that grows our food. These solutions are part of a larger lifestyle shift that many are experiencing as a natural way to transition to a more sustainable way of living. Island life teaches us to live within finite boundaries and this wisdom will benefit our whole planet which is a small island of life in a vast universe.