Sunflowers can help clean radioactive soil. Japan is using this to rehabilitate Fukashima.

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After Hiroshima, Fukushima, and Chernobyl nuclear disasters, fields of sunflowers were planted across the affected landscapes to help absorb toxic metals and radiation from the soil. New research now suggests that sunflowers (Helianthus) might be as good for the environment as they are pretty to look at.

Sunflowers are what environmental scientists call hyperaccumulators– plants that have the ability to take up high concentrations of toxic materials in their tissues. Like all land-based plants, flowers have root systems that evolved as extremely efficient mechanisms for pulling nutrients, water, and minerals out of the ground, among them: zinc, copper, and other radioactive elements that are then stored in their stems and leaves.

While the sunflower-radiation link would seem like a slow-gestating cure-all for modern environmental disasters, the research is still inconclusive as to the efficacy of all sunflower varieties to help stave off environmental pollution. Post-tsunami clean-up efforts in Fukashima, however, demonstrate a promising application of this discovery.

The extent of the sunflower's role as the most effective, non-invasive means to clean up nuclear radiation remains yet unknown, but the promise and possibilities inherent to the plant’s biology are constantly revealing themselves. The sunflower is incidentally an international symbol for nuclear disarmament yet another subtle indication that nature can indeed change the world.

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