Phytoremediation: Using Natural Plants To Rejuvenate And Clean The Earth

It’s one of the biggest environmental challenges we face: around the world, there are a countless number of sites contaminated by toxins. Heavy metals, chemical waste, and in some places, even radioactive material pollute our soils. The environmental impact is huge, and the resulting health issues are tragic.

In Europe alone, the EEA estimates there are approximately 250,000 contaminated sites requiring clean up, and that number is expected to grow over the next several years. Across the U.S., the EPA says chemicals and toxins pollute the soil in thousands of sites. There is so much work to be done to fix the mess we’ve created. Excavation certainly isn’t the answer; that simply moves the chemicals from one site to another. Environmental agencies and the scientific community are instead turning to Mother Nature for help.

The Willow Project

I’ve always loved Willow trees; they’re incredibly majestic, with long, wispy branches that sway in the breeze. Not only are they hardy and fast-growing, but they also do well in polluted soil. In fact, researchers in Montreal, Canada are planting Willows to decontaminate polluted soil and groundwater at one of the city’s former industrial sites. It’s all part of a four-year natural project run by the city in conjunction with the University of Montreal.

According to CBC News, Willows are being used for their ability to soak-up pollutants in the soil. The chemical compounds that can’t be absorbed are broken down by microorganisms produced by the tree’s root system. The contaminants end up concentrated in the leaves and branches, which researchers eventually cut and burn.

If all goes well, the project could be extended, and the abandoned site could be ready for building again within the next five to 15 years. Or better yet, it could be maintained as a much-needed green space like Westergasfabriek Park in Amsterdam, a former polluted gas factory-turned gorgeous oasis thanks to Willow trees.

The trees have also been found to decontaminate wastewater, replacing treatment plants in smaller towns. An hour north of Montreal, Willows strain the water from the town’s sewers, its roots acting as natural purifiers.

Plants For Phytoremediation

In addition to Willows, there are a number of plants that can be used for phytoremediation, the process of removing toxins from the soil:

  • Indian Mustard
  • Poplar Trees
  • Indian Grass
  • Sunflowers

These plants help rejuvenate the earth, thanks to their ability to absorb metals, diesel fuel, and agro-chemical residues such as pesticides and herbicides. Phytoremediation is commonly used in Europe to clean chemical-soaked soils, such as in Germany’s Landschaftspark, the former site of a coal and steel production plant. It was abandoned in 1985, and in the 1990’s was cleaned with the use of trees and turned into a public playground for scuba divers, rock climbers and gardeners alike.

Hemp For Healing

Hemp seeds have emerged as a kind of ‘Superfood’ over the years, but what might be lesser known is that hemp itself is considered a ‘Superplant’ thanks to its ability to clean contaminated soils. In 1986, a nuclear disaster in Chernobyl left radioactive waste across Eastern Europe. Industrial hemp crops were planted to remove the dangerous pollutants from the ground and water at former weapons producing facilities in Ukraine. Science has discovered it is just as effective at removing metals, pesticides and crude oil from the earth.

After performing such a dirty task, the hemp crops cannot be used for consumption, but they can safely be distilled into ethanol for use of biofuel. Unfortunately, the use of hemp for phytoremediation is not widespread; because of its link to the cannabis family, there are still laws in place around the world that make growing the crop illegal. Proponents, however, tout hemp as one of the most sustainable and eco-friendly crops around — one with the capability of cleaning the earth and feeding future populations.

Regardless of what type of plant is used, phytoremediation is truly amazing and delivers some much-needed hope to the world. Mother Nature coming to our rescue, once again.

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Catherine Sherriffs

Editor at Garden Culture Magazine

Catherine is a Canadian award-winning journalist who worked as a reporter and news anchor in Montreal’s radio and television scene for 10 years. A graduate of Concordia University, she left the hustle and bustle of the business after starting a family. Now, she’s the editor and a writer for Garden Culture Magazine while also enjoying being a mom to her three young kids. Her interests include great food, gardening, fitness, animals, and anything outdoors.