What is Phytoremediation?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Phytoremediation is a form of environmental cleanup which involves the use of plants and fungi. While phytoremediation can be slow and it does have some problems, it does carry some distinct advantages, and scientists are constantly refining it in the hopes of creating more solutions to the global issue of pollution. You may have seen some examples of phytoremediation in your community, ranging from the planting of fast-growing groundcover to prevent topsoil loss to the use of genetically engineered plants to pull heavy metals out of the group.

Some treatment systems rely on microorganisms that eat away oil pollution.
Some treatment systems rely on microorganisms that eat away oil pollution.

The concept of phytoremediation is actually fairly old, although people only realized the potential implications in the late 20th century. Farmers have been rotating crops for centuries in a form of phytoremediation, preventing the buildup of potentially hazardous substances in the soil and enriching the soil with plants like beans, which fix nitrogen in the soil to make it available to other plants. These practices gave birth to a wider practice of phytoremediation, which involves the use of plants to actively pull pollutants out of the ground and water.

There are a number of forms of phytoremediation. Many plants are capable of uptaking pollutants and storing them, meaning that people can plant trees or plants and then remove them after they have pulled the pollutants out of the soil. Plants can also be used to control the spread of pollution. Some plants will actively metabolize pollutants, breaking them down into harmless substances, while others stimulate the growth of microbes which can metabolize pollutants.

Incidentally, microbes are also used in environmental remediation. Several companies have actually genetically engineered microbes which eat things like oil and nuclear waste, and new extremophilic organisms are constantly being discovered in a range of environments. This suggests that bacteria may at some point be able to perform the bulk of environmental cleanup, playing the same role they have been playing for millennia.

There are, of course, some disadvantages to phytoremediation. It takes longer than some environmental remediation techniques, requiring patience and in some cases the installation of warning signage for future generations. Phytoremediation also comes with the risk of introducing dangerous substances into the food supply, as the plants used could be eaten or they could serve as a food source for food animals if the polluted site is not carefully controlled. Some plants also pollute as they intake pollutants, expressing various substances which can be carried by the water or wind.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Last spring, some of the soil in my community was in danger of eroding because of the heavy rain we had experienced. City officials were worried, because the area had been so overdeveloped. Condos and apartments had taken over, and the vegetation had been stripped in many areas.

To prevent erosion, the city began planting creeping groundcover. These plants spread like a virus and populated the area with greenery and blossoms.

They used creeping phlox and Irish moss, along with a fast-growing grass. The phlox was covered in little pink flowers for a few weeks, and the Irish moss was a mass of green leaves and white blossoms.

In addition to holding down the soil, the plants did a lot to beautify the region. I was glad that the city decided to plant them.


My dad has always used phytoremediation in his vegetable garden. He rotates his crops out to avoid sapping the soil of nutrients, and he has seen good results from this technique.

Though he plants some of the same vegetables each year, he moves them around. Where he planted corn the previous year, he currently grows tomatoes. Where the okra flourished last year, watermelons have taken over.

Everything he has ever grown has flourished. He has nice, juicy fruits and veggies because of his phytoremediation method.

To me, things taste better when they are not grown in the same spot each year. Has anyone else ever noticed this?

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