Plants help in so many ways. Got a cold? Drink peppermint or ginger tea. Can’t sleep? Make a cup of chamomile tea. Want to cook with a wild edible? Harvest some nettles in spring, throw chopped leaves into a pot of soup, or steam like spinach and add to rice, pasta, veggies.

We forage for plants all the time. Some of us go to supermarkets where the harvesting is done for us and we can pick and choose. Some of us like wilder varieties and harvest from our land and gardens. We marvel at meadows that sway and glow with a variety of colors. Trees and shrubs contribute too to our gathering, whether wood to burn, wood to use for product, berries to eat, nuts to gather. So much in our natural world supports us.

But let’s go deeper. We have many areas in our country contaminated by toxic wastes. Watersheds are polluted. Soils are denatured and rendered unhealthy. Air can be dense with toxic fumes. How do we clean these basic elements up and leave a cleaner legacy for our children and future generations? My podcast guest this week, Kat Van Deusen, an ecological engineer has created a firm with partners that do just that: they clean up toxic spills with plants.

She states: Many of our undeveloped lands in these states, specifically New York and New Jersey, have soils and waterways contaminated with:

PCB’s
Petroleum products
Dry cleaner fluids (particularly toxic)
Metals
Landfill waste

These sites are termed Brownfield sites. Our traditional way of dealing with contaminated sites is to extract the soil, remove it. Then the question becomes where do we dump this toxic soil? Other techniques for water breaks down the contaminants and then sprays them into the air. Is that further contributing to air pollution?

Kat is unique in this field. As a trained scientist she uses the skills and tools from her education. However, her grandmother taught her something about working with the plant kingdom in more traditional, esoteric ways. Kat has a knack for scouting out an area, observing plant species present which often leads to a hidden toxic dump site. How does she do this? The plants tell her, she replies.

How does she work?

  1. She evaluates the landscape or Brownfield.
  2. Evaluates plant and tree species present; these two steps are complex as our topography undulates, has curves and slopes.
  3. If she has to replant the area, she uses plants/trees in multiple steps to prevent further contamination into water or lowlands.
  4. Specific plants/trees can eat up contaminants, metabolize them, which results in the expiration of water vapor into the air that is no longer toxic.
  5. First successors like cedar trees, pokeweed do this efficiently.
  6. Does it work? Groundwater is repeatedly tested and these scientists note an 80% reduction in contaminants in the soil and water.
  7. Cattails (Typha latifolia), Phragmites are great at protecting habitats. Have you observed these plants around waterways near our highways?  While some may consider Phragmites to be invasive I find it interesting that these plants are part of nature’s clean-up crew. Dandelions are soil stabilizers. Did you know sunflowers are planted extensively around Chernobyl? They absorb the radiation from the soil. Fukushima sunflower project is underway.


Kat concluded our interview by stating nature has effectively engineered a way to create balance and the renewed hope of cleaning up our mess.

Lastly, she gives thanks to the plant kingdom for their guidance and when done, she often feels she receives their blessing.

She states: “The true measure of a scientist is to allow themselves to be open to all possibilities not the empirical.” This philosophy allows the scientist within and her scientific curiosity to blend with her matrilineal ability to perceive plants differently: which plants give a clue to a problem, which plants can literally eat up toxins and bring healthy renewal to our land. Her projects are unique. Her approach is innovative. Her results are measurable and positive.

Most of us love plants, nature in some way. Today our science is helping us get back into nature with more awe, respect, reverence even for the intelligence that is right there often in our own backyard. What have you observed in your gardens? We enjoy your comments.

Oh and please share. let’s get the word out. Together we can make a difference.

Thanks, Judith

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