As both gesture and deed, officials in Fukushima, Japan have this summer sowed sunflower seeds at a city plaza. The planting is part of their overall efforts to recover from the epic earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant disaster by removing radioactive materials from the soil.
For many people the Sunflower plantings — and the majestic floral coronas and seeds they promise – bring spirals of hope. Sunflowers, it is said, have the healing capacity to absorb radioactive substances. Having been seriously compromised with toxic nuclear radiation, much of Japan is in need of creative efforts to respond to the call of the land and restore balance. The planting of sunflowers is one positive, proactive step in that direction.
In technical terms, this kind of planting to heal poisoned land is called phytoremediation – the use of plants to absorb pollutants from air, water, and soil.
The Fukushima sunflower project is one of many international efforts at phytoremediation, including an extensive planting at the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site in the Ukraine. Phytoremediation takes advantage of the fact that green plants can extract and concentrate certain elements within their ecosystem. In this way, pollutants are either removed from the soil and groundwater or rendered harmless.
Many institutes and companies around the world are testing different plants’ effectiveness at removing a wide range of contaminants. Overall, phytoremediation has potential for responding creatively — and gracefully — to the call of the land by using flowers and other plants to clean up toxic metals, pesticides, solvents, explosives and nuclear radiation.
Come with me
into the field of sunflowers.
Their faces are burnished disks,
their dry spines
creak like ship masts,
their green leaves,
so heavy and many,
fill all day with the sticky
sugars of the sun…
— by Mary Oliver