SF ecologists testing human and animal hair to help grow plants in Presidio

ByDan Ashley and Tim Didion KGO logo
Sunday, December 31, 2023
SF ecologists testing human, animal hair to help grow plants
Ecologists in San Francisco are testing human and animal hair to help restore native habitats in the Presidio.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- For Noah Teller, precision is a passion, especially when he's trying to learn how to make things grow. As Ecological and Restoration Coordinator at San Francisco's Presidio, he's testing a variety of fertilizers in a tiny square by square competition.

And if you think he's splitting hairs, you wouldn't be far off.

"Once that's done, we're ready to apply our restoration treatments. So, we already have the hair spread out here," Teller explains.

That's right, hair. With cars whizzing by above him on a busy causeway, Teller is methodically planting garden patches and covering them with hair collected from humans and animals. He spreads it all like a mulch, blanketing the borders of native plants and seedlings.

"We want to see how the hair compares to, you know, a commonly used industry materials," he adds.

Presidio Trust ecologist Lew Stringer says the hair releases key elements as it decomposes.

"What we know about the hair is that it's full of nitrogen and that it's, it's locked up in the keratin that is in part of our hair. And as it decompose is through fungal breakdowns and bacterial consumption, it makes it available for the plants that need it," says Stringer.

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The California Academy of Sciences is launching a program to digitize their plant collection to make sure the botanical data survives for the future.

The Presidio is working with a group called Matter of Trust.

The San Francisco nonprofit is driving an international movement to repurpose donated hair for environmental uses.

Mats woven from hair have already been used to help soak up oil from disasters like the 2007 Cosco Busan spill in San Francisco Bay. But founder Lisa Gautier believes soil restoration could grow into an even more widespread use.

"You can work in your own flowerpots, window boxes. You can put it in your garden as long as it's not too long. If you keep hair that's less than three inches, it's better because you don't want birds to take it and put it in their nests," says Gautier.

MORE: Here's how trust team is working together to restore Presidio Forest in SF

Teams are hard at work restoring Presidio Forest in San Francisco with a diverse catalog of plant life.

She says the hair is collected from sources around the world. Sometimes small donations in envelopes, sometimes large shipments.

"So we get hair from hair salons and barbers. We get people that are just cutting off braids that they've, you know, grown on their own from households. And of course, you know, lots of groomers, ranches that have alpaca bison wool," says Gautier.

Back at the Presidio, Lew Stringer and his team are trying to learn whether the hair is more effective than mixing other types of mulch and fertilizer.

"So this slow release fertilizer in the hair is one of the things we're about to test and see if that's better than just using fertilizer alone," Stringer explains.

MORE: Here's how Bay Area researchers are using plants to fight climate change

Bay Area researchers are looking for a solution to climate change and may have found the answer in plants like switchgrass.

So with his signature precision, Noah Teller continues to monitor and inspect his Presidio garden. Combing through the brush as it were, for a hair-based solution to restore native grass and plants.

If you're interested in learning more about the hair donation project, you can check out the nonprofit Matter of Trust here.

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