The Seed and the Story: Imagining Phytoremediation in Our Own Backyards.

Yarrow from

The Seed and the Story is a weekly column exploring folklife, sustainability, oral history, human rights,and community in Yell County (and surrounding areas), Arkansas.   

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Nearly a decade ago in the months after Hurricane Katrina, a friend and I traveled to the Ninth Ward in New Orleans to volunteer with the Common Ground Relief, a grassroots organization formed to meet the immediate needs of communities shattered by the gulf coast storm.  The organization still exists today with the mission to help create and sustain “resilient communities that are environmentally stable, financially viable, and personally cohesive.”  They offer rebuilding services, food through local gardens, wetland remediation, and legal aid. They’ve been on my mind this week because it was through their work in wetland restoration that I first heard about the use of bioremediation. I’ve often wondered how we could apply the concept on a small scale in our own backyards.

Bioremediation is a form of environmental cleanup, which relies on biological organisms—plants, fungi, and microorganisms to remove toxins and clean up the soil. Phytoremediation refers specifically to use of various types of plants to remove, transfer, stabilize, and/or destroy contaminants in the soil and groundwater.  Plants are ancient and self-sustaining, and it’s no surprise that they posses the ability to clean up our modern, human waste—things like oil spills on the coast, toxins from pesticides in the soil and groundwater, and the byproducts of technological or e-waste, including heavy metals like cadmium that make their way into our soils.  In Common Ground’s work on in the gulf, they’re using something called a Gulf Saver Bag, a package of native marsh grasses with a supply of natural nutrients and oil-eating microorganisms.  The process, a creative combination of modern technology and ancient plant ability, seems to be working, and is successfully restoring habitats and ecosystems.

From You Are the City Guide to Phytoremediation.

Another example is the use of phytoremediation in cities.  According to the New York based firm, You Are the City, anywhere from 17-45% of land in large cities sits vacant, often polluted with the remnants of petroleum from former parking lots or industrial waste.  If the vacant land is addressed at all, the typical response is to dig up the contaminated dirt, haul it off and replace it with new soil.  This is, of course, costly and so the lots typically remain vacant.  According to the You Are the City organization, in New York alone these vacant lots account for 11,000 acres of underutilized land that could be used for things like parks, gardens, even housing.  Phytoremediation can takes years to clean the soil, but it’s cost effective and in the interim it offers beauty and improves air quality.  Phytomediation of vacant lots can even cut down on pollutants in our waterways by reducing storm water runoff.

Here in Arkansas we don’t have many urban centers or oil spills.  But we’ve got plenty of polluted lands, a number of vacant lots that could grow food, and plenty of contaminated ground water.  So I wonder, how we can apply these concepts on a small scale, in our own farms, backyards, and public spaces?  In doing a little research I’ve discovered that some of the common wildflowers that can take out heavy metals in the soil include field chickweed, yarrow (one of my favorites herbs/flowers of all time), foxglove, Indian mustard, and golden rod.  Sunflowers and willow trees are especially adept and cleaning up the soil as are certain grasses, including sorghum. As Nao Ueda of Green Arkansas by the Day reminded me, when considering phytoremediation in your own home, make sure to always use native plants, rather than something invasive that can actually deplete the soil.

I’m starting a tiny phytoremediation garden in my own yard, and I have so much yet to learn.  And I’m certainly no scientist or even an expert gardener.  But it seems to only make sense for gardeners, city planners, farmers, building owners, all of really, to work with those who are studying phytoremediation and harness it’s ability to help strengthen our own soil and groundwater, wherever we are.  Do you use some form of phytoremediation?  I’d love to hear about it.


  1. […] communities, cleaning up toxins and supporting biodiversity.   To read the previous two columns go here and here.   This week’s column is an extension of last week’s discussion of the […]