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Beautiful Bulrushes, Remarkable Reeds:
The Water Reclamation Miracles of Kaethe Seidel

Copyright 1990 by Elisabet Sahtouris

"I want to point out that plants are something entirely different from animals. They are the true foundation of the larger life forms, necessary for something to have become of this planet. The plants had to do it first,and what strikes one so much is that, when the scientists or engineers say, 'here in this water, animal life is dying' they don't even consider the plants -- what plants are growing as a basis for animal life in water. Look at that picture near your bag -- see the snowy white roots on those reeds? That was in a really awful brew of water in America, in South Carolina, where we did substance tests. It's a small river in which the water had become so polluted the farmers could no longer let their stock drink its waters, and no one could find a solution. The hoses we laid actually disintegrated, yet the plants continued to grow! That is, plants have a completely different lifestyle than animals. And this is something still not understood. If you want to prepare things for animals to live, you must create a prior culture of plants.

"We have been testing and demonstrating this for many years, and no one else had done it before us. I came here with that intention -- to show that waters must first be reconstituted with plants. And if this were understood and acted on wherever dirty effluents are poured into bodies of water, we would not have such problems today. Unfortunately, biologists have never adequately concerned themselves with plants. Even at our Max Planck Institute, there were wellknown chemists, zoologists, microbiologists, but no one concerned with plants. In fact, they laughed at me."

At eighty-two, Dr. Kaethe Seidel, head of the former Limnology Group of the Max Planck Institute, long nicknamed Bulrush Kate ("Die Binzen Kaethe"), is a tough-minded, clear-thinking scientist with a remarkable record of pioneering work in a kind of biological wastewater treatment that should be far better known and used than is the case. In the course of a professional career spanning over sixty years, she has demonstrated the effectiveness of naturally growing plants in breaking down ballast substances, transposing toxic into non-toxic substances, destroying pathogenic bacteria, viruses and worm eggs, removing heavy metals, cleaning oil spills, removing salt, neutralizing pH, enriching with oxygen, transforming waste water into drinking water and replenishing groundwater --- all with photosynthesis as the sole energy source.

Scientists from NASA, from Japan, from many institutes worldwide who have discovered her work have visited her to learn more, yet there is relatively little followup given its scope and importance except for the remarkable installations for which she has been more or less directly responsible.

"Why," I asked her, as we sat in the huge old mansion that served as headquarters for the Limnology Group, in the midst of a nature preserve near Krefeld in Germany, where she now lives alone until her immanent eviction, due to sale of the property by the Max Planck Institute.

Her answer was telling. "Men always reach for technology, for development. They insist it will bring us to higher levels of progress. They haven't the patience to work with slow-growing plants, nor do they understand natural cycles as women do. They see my work as farming, not engineering, so they go away and return to their machinery."

"Wait till we run out of water," I countered. "They'll all come running to you then."

"It will be too late then," she said matter-of-factly in her rich, low register voice. "Neither these cabinets, nor the research reports in them, nor I, will be around."

[Sadly, yet perhaps predictably, Dr. Seidel passed away a few months after her eviction.]

I first heard Kaethe Seidel's name mentioned by John Todd, founder of the New Alchemy Institute in Falmouth, Massachusetts and Ocean Arks International, with its more recent Center for Protection and Restoration of Waters. He had said she deserved a Nobel Prize for her lifelong work on what various plants take from their environment, and indicated that it had been important to his own work. I did not guess then how important, but noted that he mentioned her name again when we both gave keynote addresses at the Fifth Annual Conference of the International Institute for Advanced Studies in Cybernetics and Information Systems in Baden Baden. Something in me demanded I try to find her, so I set out to do so and within a week, I was talking with her.

The information contained in this article, other than direct quotes, can be found in the 1978 edition of her research report Contributions ti Revitalization of Waters (Stiftung Limnologisthe Arbeitsgruppe, Dr. Seidel e.V., Am Waldwinkel 70, D4150 Krefeld-Hulserberg, W. Germany), the only report of her work translated into English, though her publications number, in addition, 114 journal and book contributions and one entire volume, Limnologie in Stichworten, published by Erich Schmidt Veriag GmbH, Berlin.

The 1976 report states on p. 2 that "Kaethe Seidel aroused the opposition of experts in 1953," when in a report from the Max Planck Institute, she discussed the possibility "of lessening the overfertilization, pollution and silting up of inland waters through appropriate plants, thereby allowing the contaminated waters to support life once more."

One gets the impression that despite her long laboratory research record, her male colleagues have always regarded her an upstart whose elbows-in-the-dirt approach was somehow beneath the professional dignity of proper scientists. Nor did she work with exotic organisms, and one can imagine the blows to the pride of hi-tech engineers when she demonstrated that common reeds and bulrushes could easily do the job of elaborate waste water treatment plants.

Already in 1953, she suggested for this purpose the common bulrush, Schoenoplectus lacustris (L.) Palla (old designation Scirpus lacustris), having proved in her research work that this species was capable of "removing large quantities of organic and inorganic substances from contaminated waters."

Until that time it had been assumed that higher flowering plants, including such rushes, could only exist in non-polluted waters, yet Seidel showed the astonishing adaptability of many plants to changing conditions of pollution, to wit, the remarkable green parks that continue in many industrial areas. By 1957, Seidel had shown that her bulrushes not only enrich the soil they grow in with bacteria and humus, but apparently exude antibiotics that kill mould fungi. She had also shown that they take up large quantities of ballast substances including cobalt, copper, nickel, and manganese from sewage water, and that other higher plants, including the common reed, Phragmites communis Trin., are capable of drying out and mineralizing assorted sludge combinations which are normally difficult to remove. The almost water-free residues contain very little, if any, dangerous bacteria or worm eggs.

Prior observations of natural waters had indicated that water was cleaner and fish healthier where rush populations existed. In the laboratory, it was shown clearly that an astonishingly fast alteration of bacterial populations occur in the region of the rushes, as well as of some higher plants. E. coli, coliform bacteria, salmonella, enterococci disappeared entirely within a day while healthy bacterial populations increased. These results were confirmed in 1966 by L. Althaus in a series of experiments at the Gelsenkirchen Hygiene Institute in Urach, which showed additionally that viruses and worm eggs were eliminated. Other studies showed that up to 90% of E. coli, enterococcus and salmonella organisms could be eliminated in as little as two hours by a number of other plants, including water mint (Mentha aquat.), water plantain (Alisma plan.), soft rush (Juncus eff.), yellow flag (Iris pseud.) and the bulrushes and reeds cited previously.

Other plants researched by the team include sunflowers, cattails, water hyacinths and various grasses. In 1963, Seidel's Limnological Team established a cooperative effort with a large waterworks and several specialized institutes to test the effects of various plants on pathogen elimination, organic, inorganic and toxic substance uptake (including phenols, cyanate, thiocyanate), and differing origin sludge mineralization on wastewater from nuclear research centers, steel, food and pharmaceutical industries. After a promising start, the Limnological Team's monies dried up, though at least fourteen other research centers in universities, municipalities and private institutes took up the research.

Challenges to the results on the removal from wastewater of hydrocarbons such as phenol and its derivatives were met when the metabolism of phenol in Schoenoplectus lacustris was worked out in detail by R. Kickuth of the Gottingen Institute for Soil Science, with whom Seidel had been publishing on this subject as early as 1951.

In a three-year experiment on phenol uptake, the phenol was repeatedly added to well water in regulated quantities up to 100mg/l, the rushes removed it completely at any season, though more rapidly in summer than midwinter. Interestingly, the rushes gained in biomass though no other nutrients were supplied, showing that the phenols were converted to biomass. Other highly toxic phenol derivatives such as p-cresol, xylol, hydroquinone, resorcin, pyrochatecol, pyrolgallol, B-hydroxypyrochatecol, pyridine, p-quinoline, 2.4.6 colidin, napthol, aniline, guaicol, phloroglucine and p-chlorophenol were applied in twice the lethal dosage for fish and not only were tolerated by the rushes, but entirely removed from the waters. Other experiments demonstrated the effective breakdown of highly toxic pentachlorophenol and of cyanogen compounds.

In South Carolina, Schoenoplectus rushes were used to treat wastewater from a fabric printing works printing 400 km of fabric daily. While the feeding pipe coupling sockets were destroyed by the corrosive wastewater after one year of use, the rushes were thriving, displaying 10 to 20 times more lush growth than those in a healthy Schleswig Holstein lake.

Successful projects abandoned

In 1959, the Krefeld Waterworks allowed its gravelpit recharge ponds, containing chlorinated and flocked Rhine River water laden with ballast and flavour substances, phenols and pathogenic germs, to be planted with 10,000 Schoenoplectus plants. Prior to the planting, the pondwater, intended to replenish groundwater, was blocked from doing so by the buildup of an impermeable layer formed in the subsoil. After planting, the incrustation ceased and the water conveyed to nearby wells was free of bacteria, phenols and other troublesome substances. This planted percolation lake was fully functional for thirteen years with an hourly flowthrough of 400 cubic meters. It was shut down due to a change in management.

Tar abrasion and oil in street rainwater runoff were similarly cleaned in the Ruhrgebiet, and it was demonstrated that expensive pipelines to conduct poisoned autobahn runoff to conventional sewage plants was both harmful (because of fermentation processes occurring in the air-excluding pipes) and unnecessary.

Over the years, Seidel's team carried out successful experiments with waste waters and sludge from the production of pharmaceutical drugs, print and paint, tinned foods, margarine, sugar, sauerkraut factories and packing plants, as well as with a eucalyptus lumber mill in Brazil. "The results were absolutely positive, so that the usage of out biological-ecological methods appeared most promising." Even laboratory sludges from the nuclear research centre in Karlsruhe were treated, "yielding a compost upon which radish, spinach and other vegetables were grown and utilized with the greatest success." The weakly radioactive sludges had previously been stored in concrete basins where they could never dry out and various methods of extracting the water by technical means had failed. The common reed, which disrupts colloids so that they release their bound water, completely removed and cleared the water of harmful substances.

As Dr. Seidel told me, "Our plant cultures took up radioactivity and later there was no trace of it, it simply did not exist. It was eliminated into the air through the leaf stomata. Some plants accumulate radioactivity and only release it through the stomata when they die. The quantities released were so low that there is no danger to other organisms. Trees could be planted in radioactive soil to remove the dangerous materials and warnings could be posted not to cut them if they are of the accumulator variety."

Other demonstrated effects of reeds and rushes are the neutralization of pH in a matter of hours to a few days, the removal of asbestos, removal of oil in sweet, brackish and saltwater, via easily transported planted basins whose surfaces retain the suspended materials and oils within 2-3 minutes, permitting clear water to flow away. Such basins have been in use for up to seven months without failing to clear 1000mg diesel fuel/l in water or sludge. They can easily be installed on wet docks or floats in harbors or lorried to accident sites.

Seidel's team was rare and remarkable for its continual application of carefully controlled laboratory results in field tests, its return to laboratory work whenever field results were not entirely successful or raised new questions. Field tests and commercial or government installations were basically of two types: intensive and extensive.

In 1964, a patent was issued for "Intensive Plants" involving "a filter layer constructed from wire netting and planted with root forming plants...the roots providing for the permeability of the filter when a sludge layer is formed on the filter surface." The root-forming plants listed in the patent were the bulrush, water mint, and calamus (whose Latin names are given above) "especially because of their bactericidal action." To speed up the sludge deposition "aerator pipes could be laid over the grating, thus leading to an acceleration of the multiplication process of the microorganisms attached to the suspended solids." The scheme was to let the plants grow exclusively from the nutritive substances dispersed in the wastewater washing their roots and to enhance the synergetic action of microorganisms and sludge flocculation by the introduction of air. The sludge could then be periodically sucked out from under the grating by appropriately placed soil funnels.

A demonstration plant was set up in Urach as part of the Friedr. Krupp wastewater treatment system, attaining extremely good results, even in winter, reaching a wastewater quality "not previously held possible." The 1976 report goes on to say: "The plant was unfortunately sacrificed for the building of a health treatment center."

Clean water and gainful harvests in one

While intensive plants have a runthrough time of only a few hours, large extensive plants function effectively at slower rates. In Holland, there are several such "plants" -- extensive fields of rushes that completely clean all the wastewater from large camping sites, one near Elburg accommodating up to 6,000 people a day. The filtering effect of the planted soil remains constant despite the continuous supply of sludge and the installations pay for themselves by selling the harvested reeds as wicker material.

Bulrushes used to clean the wastewater from a sugar plant were periodically harvested and sold to fatten ducks, being excellent fodder also for cows and other stock. They are also a very fruitful loose compost, free of pathogenic germs, worm eggs or weed seeds, but containing useful bacteria. Where they have taken up heavy metals or toxins, they can be air dried and bundled for the well-paying international market for wicker. The common reed is similarly in demand as thatching and for matting. Such uses have paid for the harvesting machinery and labor in Dutch installations.

Bulrushes, having a single growth zone at the stem base (the intercalarcic meristem), can constantly grow out of an aggressive water or sludge zone along its entire height and can be harvested twice a year to keep them working. Reeds, on the other hand, have growth nodes all along the stem, so that aggressive substances accumulate in the lowest stem part, eventually destroying the plant, and thus reeds work best with non-aggressive sludges. Both plants must be harvested only above the lowest growth zone to avoid replanting. If reeds are not cut back, water deteriorates quickly and reeds retreat. While many other plants have proved more successful for specific tasks (e.g. yellow flag for salt removal), the reeds and rushes stand out for their total performance.

Seidel added, in our conversation, "Rushes can live well where there are tides, too. We have planted them successfully on saltsea shores, but they must be able to get air when the tide goes out, not be in salt water continually. They could be planted around the North Sea, for example. What could evolve from that? Or in the Sudan, where the goats are dying from water polluted with sewage. Had they planted rushes around those ponds, they could have cleaned the water.

"In the late seventies, I spent some time at Lake Titicaca in Peru, where these rushes grow profusely 5,000 meters above sea level. The surrounding area was barren, there is no farming. But the rushes are harvested as fodder, as well as for roofing and for boatbuilding. These rushes, unlike grains, can be repeatedly harvested without resowing, as they keep growing back. Men cut them in the water at the lake's edges, women transport them to the livestock. They are the best nourishment for cows, pigs, horses -- full of vitamins.

"They have a fascinating construction, growing like a very tall chimney from a growth zone only 2-3 millimeters thick near their base. That is, they grow from the bottom up. A chimney could never be built that way, but this plant can do it continually for years. You only must be careful not to cut into this growth zone when harvesting them."

(Seidel's early background, well before she won a doctorate, was as a trained master gardener and her team always emphasized the importance of careful cultivation and supervision in their working field installations to ensure their functions over long time periods, pointing out that other wastewater facilities must also be constantly monitored. Unfortunately, such installations were often not built to Seidel's specifications and remained unattended in use. When such efforts failed, the technique itself was blamed.)

"I saw rushes planted not only at Lake Titicaca but in even higher ground, on outlying areas, in fields. If only this culture would be spread widely in the third world. I've been asked to come to Lake Baikal, but I don't know yet whether something will come of it. I've been there once and the rushes would work well there; also in Africa. Wherever rushes grow around water holes, the water can be drunk. It is so clear. On the Ivory Coast, it is posted that one should drink only where there are rushes. But not much is being done with this knowledge."

[In Uganda, according to environmental consultant Dr. Edward Rugumayo, an entire city's sewage is cleaned by flowing through reeds in fortuitous natural growth around the outskirts.]

Understanding ecosystems

"Young people today study science, but have little practical experience and knowledge. Some landscape architects are interested in saving rivers now, but they don't understand why they should plant rushes along their banks. Then there is the Adriatic problem, which could be attacked. But it seems we would rather proceed to catastrophe than become sensible.

"Young people who care tend to focus on animals. The big thing nowadays in Germany is biotopes, biotopes. And what they are doing is dangerous. They are creating artificial ponds, planting them so they will attract birds and dragonflies. But they are also attracting mosquitoes that spread diseases. It is a fashion now in Germany to create these biotopes. New groundwater is pumped up to create the ponds and is blown off and evaporated into the atmosphere. Rather than reclaiming water already above ground, they reduce the groundwater even more! Plants get their own water from the ground and do not waste it.

"If you think about what is being done, in agriculture, in wastewater treatment, it is hard to maintain sanity. We showed in Krefeld (see above) that water pumped from the middle of the Rhine, passed through a simple filter and then poured through a field of these rushes could be put directly into water pipes without further treatment -- pure drinking water. But men do not pursue these methods because they do not demand technology and thus do not make profits. Nor do they want to do the plantings; they say they are engineers, not farmers.

"In Brazil, we demonstrated that the hot and highly acid wastewater from a eucalyptus sawmill could be recycled through plants. We could not find the reeds there, but found other plants that also work. There is so much that can be done. All normal wastewater from human habitation can easily be directed into small streams planted with rushes or reeds and reclaimed at least for agriculture. Pathogenic bacteria are so quickly and easily destroyed..."

It is apparently Seidel's patented intensive system which has been adapted by John Todd in New England (Vermont and Rhode Island), though when I told her the plants there are contained in greenhouses, she was puzzled, as her own installations have not required housing even under winter conditions. "Rushes work summer and winter, around the clock, even under two meters of snow," she told me. All that is required to make the intensive system work is to isolate the reed basins from surrounding soil.

These basins contain drainage pipes in course gravel at the bottom, fine gravel planted with reeds or rushes above, topped by a few centimeters of fine filtering sand. Contaminated water is fed in from above. A series of such basins are cascaded to aerate the water. For the sludge load of typical sewage water, 1 square meter of reed basin (w. 20 rush or reed plants) serves 1 cubic meter of contaminated water per day.

Perhaps Todd has found that the more complex technology of his "living machines" improves the efficiency of the plants, but it is also important to spread information on simple projects people can implement without financial investment in areas where financial resources are lacking.

The more complex such natural water-cleaning systems become and the more difficult they are to construct and maintain, the less accessible they will be to ordinary people around the world. Bulrush Kate seems more in tune with thousands of years of pre-industrial agriculture in which people met their needs by learning nature's creative ways to create their own productive nonpolluting ecosystems without ever seeing their work as engineered miracles. These methods remain appropriate in many areas of the world today.

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