Sunflowers are bright additions to the landscape and beloved symbols of sunshine and summertime. But “there’s more to them than meets the eye,” says Noah Young (@theshilohfarm), a content creator and full-time farmer at Shiloh Farm.
In an Instagram Reel, Noah explains the unique and fascinating qualities of the popular plant, including their ability to detoxify polluted soil.
“Sunflowers have the ability to naturally extract pollutants out of the soil,” Noah explains.
The plants draw toxins like arsenic, zinc, and copper through their roots in a process called phytoextraction. Scientists have been harnessing this ability to clean up heavy metals and radioactive waste from polluted water and soil for decades.
In a process known as phytoremediation, plants like sunflowers are used to draw contaminants out of the soil and into their stalks so they can be safely and cost-effectively removed and processed by drying and ashing. Some of the extracted metals can even be recovered from the ash to be recycled.
How it’s helping
Sunflowers can grow in a range of soils and climates and are grown across the globe. Native sunflowers have a long list of benefits, from serving as ground cover to feeding important pollinators like birds, insects, and other wildlife while improving the soil with their deep taproot.
In the wake of disasters at nuclear plants such as Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, fields of sunflowers were put to work to help clean up the radioactive waste. After the Fukushima explosions, increased levels of radiation were detected in beef, vegetables, seafood, and water more than 60 miles from the site.
Reuters reports that Buddhist monk Koyu Abe sought to raise the spirits of residents and lessen the impact of the radiation by growing and distributing radiation-absorbing plants such as sunflowers, field mustard, and amaranthus.
While scientists have utilized sunflowers to reduce the toxins left behind by past disasters, researchers at Stanford are anticipating future uses for the plants’ special abilities. The studies use predictive models to examine rice production in future climate conditions, including changes in soil.
Rising temperatures are expected to increase the amount of arsenic in important food crops such as rice, which are especially sensitive to the toxin. Phytoremediation from sunflowers and other plants could be one solution to stave off crop loss and lethal contamination.
What everyone’s saying
Noah’s post highlights just a few benefits of the remarkable plant.
“Reason 2,479,829,368 to love sunflowers,” one commenter replied.
Another added, “That’s awesome. I had no idea.”
“What does the plant do with the toxins?” a curious commenter asked.
Those concerned about humans or animals consuming toxic sunflowers or seeds should not be alarmed. “There must first exist a large quantity of heavy metals or toxins in their soil,” one commenter reminded, “If you plant your sunflowers in non-contaminated soils you’re fine. You can always get your soil tested if you’re concerned.”
In general, sunflowers and sunflower products such as seeds and oils are safe and nutritious, another fascinating feature of this incredible plant.
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