Placenta – The Tree of Life

The placenta is an amazing, unique organ. It is the only organ that develops and grows within another organ. It grows with the baby from when the first cells divide, so it can begin its important work of providing nourishment as soon as possible. It is the bridge between the mother and child. They grow together, entwined and connected in the womb. That is why in some cultures it is often referred to as the baby’s twin, sibling, guardian or friend. It is also commonly known as the “Tree of Life”. In many parts of the world, the placenta is unfortunately seen as “medical waste” and is often discarded. It has many uses, both spiritual and medicinal. It can provide whatever is needed and should not be wasted. I feel we are responsible for treating the placenta with respect for everything that it has done. After giving birth to my own child and being present at my sisters birth, I have become more familiar with this beautiful complex organ and how we can honor it in many different ways. First of all…What does this marvellous organ do from conception to birth?


The placenta’s primary role is to ensure that oxygen is moved into the baby’s blood stream and carbon dioxide is carried away from the baby. However the waste is not limited to oxygen and also includes cleaning out other waste which is produced by the baby. It plays a vital role in ensuring that nutrients are received.

The placenta is an extremely complex organ. They say it is like an artificial kidney, it allows the mother’s blood and the baby’s to come into very close contact – but without ever mixing. This enables the mother’s blood to pass across nutrients and oxygen to the baby, and waste products like carbon dioxide to go back from baby to mother. It acts as the lung, kidney and digestive system for the baby.

The placenta also plays an important role in hormone production. Human chronic gonadotropin, or hCG is produced by the placenta. This is of course not the only hormone which the placenta produces as it is also responsible for the production of estrogen and progesterone .

The placenta performs the important function of protecting the baby against possible infections. However, it is not always able to distinguish between what is a good substance and what isn’t. This is why pregnant women are asked to avoid substances which may cause harm, such as caffeine, alcohol, herbal substances and drugs.


The following are some rituals that have been performed in different cultures around the world. The placenta and umbilical cord is seen as something sacred and honorable.

The Cord
My sister made a beautiful heart with my umbilical cord which she put on a plate to dry over a few days. It now has a special place on our alter at home, next to my belly cast. It is lovely to have a daily reminder about that special time in my life.

– A close friend or relative cuts the cord and becomes the child’s ‘navel mother’.
– The father of the baby cuts the cord.
– The older sibling cuts the cord.
– The woman herself cuts the cord.
– Some cultures keep the cord to make special healing preparations to be taken by the child during their childhood.
– It may be dried and kept as a memento.
– A tribe in Arizona dries the cord, and places beads onto it so the child can rub or bite it when teething.
Aborigines used to make necklaces from the cord for the child to wear, representing growth and aimed at warding off disease.
– In Kenya, Masai midwives chew the cord with their teeth to separate the cord from the placenta. The midwife then pronounces, ‘you are now responsible for your life as I am responsible for mine’.



My beautiful African mother, Tembakazi Magadla, who has been my second mum through out my whole life, shared with me some tribal truth about how the Xhosa prepare the placenta ritual. As soon as the mother has given birth to her child, the placenta is then mixed up into the soil where she has given birth, enriching and infusing the soil. The baby’s hair is then cut and no men are allowed near the birthing space for the first seven days.

The Tanala people of Madagascar observe strict silence throughout the labour and birth and as the placenta is being delivered. When the placenta comes, everyone present claps and shouts “Vita! Vita!” – meaning ‘finished’.

The Baganda of Uganda believe that the placenta is actually a second child. Not only is it the child’s double, but the placenta also has its own spirit that resides in the umbilical cord. The portion of the cord attached to the baby must be carefully preserved to ensure the good health of the child. If the child is of royal blood, the placenta itself is ritually preserved and carried in processions by a high-ranking officer. This custom is remarkably similar to that of the Egyptians, although the Egyptians carried the placenta figuratively.

In Mali, it is thought that the placenta can affect the baby’s mood or even make the baby ill. The placenta is washed, dried, placed in a basket and buried by the father.

A belief held by many Arabs is the future fertility of a woman is connected to the disposition of the placenta. Should something unpleasant happen to it the woman might be rendered sterile.


In Sudan the placenta is considered to be the infant’s ‘spirit double’ and can be buried in a place that represents the parents’ hopes for their child.

In Yemen the placenta is placed on the family’s roof for the birds to eat, in the hope that it will guarantee the love between the parents.

In Malaysia the placenta is seen as the child’s older sibling and thought that the two are reunited at death. The midwife carefully washes the placenta, cord and membranes and wraps them in a white cloth to be buried.

In Nepal, the placenta is given the name ‘bucha-co-satthi’ – meaning ‘baby’s friend’.

In China, the placenta is considered a powerful medicine. It is dried and made into a powder, placed into capsules so that the woman can take it at various times in her life, including menopause.

In Korea the placenta is often burned and the ashes kept. During periods of illness the ashen powder is given in a liquid to help heal the child.
Among the Hmong culture, the word for placenta can be translated as “jacket,” as it’s considered an infant’s first and finest clothing. The Hmong bury the placenta outside as they believe that after death, the soul must journey back through the past until it reaches the burial place of the placenta and await rebirth.

In Cambodia, the placenta is carefully wrapped in a banana tree leaf, placed beside the newborn baby for three days and then buried.

In Thai culture the placenta is often salted and placed in an earthen jar. On a day deemed auspicious for burying this clay pot, a site is prepared and the placenta is laid to rest. The jar is buried under a tree that corresponds to the symbol of the Asian year of the child’s birth and depending on what month the child was born dictates which bearing the pot faces.


In some regions of South America the placenta is burned after birth to neutralize it and planted in the ground to protect it from evil spirits.


For Navajo Indians, it is customary to bury a child’s placenta within the sacred four corners of the tribe’s reservation as a binder to ancestral land and people. The Navajos also bury objects with it to signify the profession they hope the child will pursue.

In Hawaii the placenta is brought home and washed, then buried following a religious ritual with a tree planted on it. It is believed this binds the child to his or her homeland. The “iewe” (placenta) of the newborn child is sacred and must be handled in a sacred manner in order to provide for the physical health of the child.


The indigenous Bolivian Aymara and Quecha people believe the placenta has its own spirit. It is to be washed and buried by the husband in a secret and shady place. If this ritual is not performed correctly, they believe, the mother or baby may become very sick or even die.

The commercial use of “placenta extract” found in some cosmetics, such as facial cream, is sold in France. In 1994, Britain banned the practice of collecting placentas in hospitals from unsuspecting mothers, after it was learned that 360 tons of it were annually being bought and shipped by French pharmaceutical firms. They used it to make a protein, albumin, for burns and to make enzymes to treat rare genetic disorders.


New Zealand Maori gift the Placenta or Whenua as a gift to Papa Tua Nuku or Mother Earth. In Maori, the word for land and placenta are the same – whenua, and illustrates the connection between them and it is usually planted with a tree on family land.

Some Aboriginal tribes bury the placenta either under the tree where they birthed or under an ant pit for the green ants. Many believe that when the green ants eat the placenta no more babies will come or at least not for a while.

In Samoa the placenta must be totally burned or buried so it will not be found by evil spirits. Burying or burning it at home also ensures the child will remain close to home as it moves through life. If buried under a fruit tree, the placenta provides nutrition for the tree that in turn will provide years of nutrition for the child.

I find it truly fascinating about all the different ways people around the world honor and give thanks to the placenta and umbilical cord. Sometimes we can get so caught up in the “norm” and not question the ways in which we do things. So if you are pregnant or you know someone who is, why not share some light and insight into other ways we can celebrate this amazing organ. I feel we need to spread the word. I also look forward to giving a talk in the Spring all about Placenta Encapsulation and the role that the placenta plays in pregnancy.

The Tree of Life

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