I was reminiscing with a cousin about our childhoods, & we were swapping stories about our beloved grandmother when she reminded me how Ma-ma always had us take the used tea leaves & scatter them about the huge grapevines & rose bushes that grew in her yard. As a little girl, I did this gladly, & without question. I did not quite understand the scientific explanation as to how they would help neutralize the soil, & how the remaining nutrients would help the plants prosper – all I knew is that my Ma-ma said they would help the velvety, fragrant, burgundy roses produce more beautiful flowers, & that the grape arbor’s yield would be much more abundant due to the used tea leaves.

Ma-ma could make anything appear to be sweeter & more beautiful than they were in reality. I recall speaking with another cousin after Ma-ma’s funeral, & as I recounted how she always made me feel like the prettiest, smartest, most special girl on earth, my cousin replied that she did the exact same thing with her. I think that is a tremendous gift, to be able to make each separate individual person feel special. I think my grandmother made every one of us grandchildren feel that way. She did this by taking whatever was leftover in any situation, & turning it into something advantageous. Today, that is known by politicians as “spin”, but I do believe that it was more with her – it was a force of habit that arose from making sure that you coaxed every little bit of value from a person or thing.

I know her roses were the loveliest in the entire neighborhood! Yes, they were even better than those of the lady who lived a block away, & whose flower garden covered her entire back yard. That lady was found out in that garden every single day for hours on end, & indeed, she grew many varieties of stunning flowers. She must’ve had over twenty varieties of roses alone. But they did not hold a candle to my grandmother’s roses. She only had two small rose bushes, & seldom tended them at all, but the fact that she allowed us to feel important by enlisting our aid in spreading out the used tea leaves to fertilize them meant that she gave us some ownership of them, & that in & of itself lends credence to any project. Additionally, she would occasionally allow us to cut them & bring them inside, & we could enjoy their unparalleled fragrance while we helped her cook the evening meal. More often than not, though, whenever these roses were cut, they were wrapped in a wet towel, & taken with the gentlest, greatest care to an ailing neighbor. Hence, they became a symbol of cheer, & a means of ministering to others, making them even more magical. 

The grapes, on the other hand, were my one of my grandfather’s pet projects, but he allowed us to indulge our grandmother by spreading out the used tea leaves around their roots. That little arbor was the scene of many, many hours spent playing by my cousins, myself, & neighborhood kids. In the warmest, most humid evenings of Summer, as the air laid in heavy sheets upon the scorched earth, that big old grapevine provided a welcome respite to us kids, & served at times as a play house, fortress, & hiding place during hide & seek. I wonder now, would it have been as large, or produced such sweet, luscious “grapes” (now that I am older, I think that they were perhaps Scuppernongs), had we not so diligently applied the used tea leaves to its roots.

My grandmother’s family had settled in the area several generations previously – at that time, her great-great grandfather was referred to as a “Planter” in deeds, & they called their farms by plantation names. These men & women tilled the soil & tended the crops year after year, so that they knew many tips & tricks without even referring to the old Farmer’s Almanacs that were always at hand. I think that the used tea laves were one of those tips. Due to these recent reflections of them, I decided to do a little online research to see whether or not there is any validity to their use as a plant fertilizer. Sure enough, a multitude of articles popped up when I performed my search. They say that the mild acidity in tea leaves helps neutralize the soil, or provide some acidity that plants need. And modern day writers do assert that they “work wonders on roses.”

I was most surprised, however, to find some other things that used tea leaves are supposed to be good for: things such as neutralizing foot, cat litter, & other odors; making incense; bug repellants; cleaning mirrors; & even preventing rust! While I have never tried anything other than fertilizing plants, these are some intriguing options.

The thing that strikes me the most, though is the frugality of my grandmother, & other people of her generation. As descendants of hearty pioneers, they were taught the “Waste not, want not” adage as if it were the gospel. I recall Ma-ma telling me that her Poppa taught her to “not ever waste anything, not even an old, rusty nail.” Now, I will not keep an old rusty nail for fear of Tetanus, but perhaps that is from whence my “Pack Rat” tendencies spring forth. 

Good old ingenuity borne of necessity – it is amazing how something so beneficial could be wrought from something like used tea leaves. I am certain that most people would view them as nothing more than refuse to be disposed of, but by the hand of God, there is still something valuable to be had from them, though they have been changed from their original form. I think it is that way with people, too.

When you feel that you have been used up, depleted, have fulfilled your purpose, & outlived your usefulness, think again! It is at that moment that perhaps, by the Grace of God, you, too, can become a fertilizer for others. Ma-ma’s sweet, iced tea was some of the best I ever had the chance to enjoy, but my, oh my, how spectacular were her roses, & how sweet was the fruit from the grape arbor! I am convinced that the used tea leaves made all of the difference, & that their usefulness after most people thought that their purpose had been fulfilled produced results that were so far superior to that iced tea as to have made their secondary use the better one indeed. 

Like used tea leaves, may we each help grow something bigger & better than ourselves. May we be willing to allow ourselves to be used for whatever purpose we are called, even if that purpose does not seem to make sense with what we feel we were originally supposed to do. For it is in acting as a catalyst for growth to others that we may see the sweetest fruit, & most fragrant flowers of all.

~ L.L.S.


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I am a Southern Belle, through and through. Born and raised in North Alabama, where my family settled in 1808, when the area was still the Mississippi Territory, I come from a line of Planters, Patriots, and Pioneers. They were people who were unafraid to take risks, who said what they believed, and who honored God and their Country. Like my ancestors before me, I have strong values, believing that the Golden Rule is indeed golden. I write as a way to relate and as a release. I hope that my words may inspire, challenge and provoke one to thinking about how extraordinary things can come out of ordinary places, people, and things.

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