• Echinacea in France

    Echinacea in France. (Photo: Creative Commons)

A scientist delving into the problem of how to clean up contaminated industrial soil says that echinacea, a plant more commonly known for fighting colds, is nothing to sneeze at.
Jules Blais, a Univeristy of Ottawa biologist at the forefront of this type of research, says that the plant could react with fungus in the soil to absorb hydrocarbons and other contaminants, and transform them into non-toxic compounds, a process known as phytoremediation.

Q: Why echinacea?
A: It has several advantages. It’s a perennial, it doesn’t require a lot of maintenance and it develops these deep roots. That means that year after year, it will extend its roots deeper, enhancing its capacity to pull contaminants out of the soil. We’re particularly interested in echinacea’s interaction with fungus, which facilitates the plant’s ability to absorb nutrients and pollutants. Echinacea can dilute pollutants that will eventually decay, along with the plant, into biomass for the soil.

Q: Did you consider any other plants?
A: We looked at sunflowers, but we wanted something that wildlife doesn’t eat; if contaminants pulled from the soil are consumed, they’re only moving from soil to squirrel, for example. Echinacea’s also  hearty and grows in a wide range of environments.

Q: What does this mean for Canada’s cleanup efforts?
A: The natural remedy could be implemented right away, but the process would happen over a very long term, decades even. As the plants grow and die, contaminants would gradually become less concentrated. If we take these steps now, though, soils will be less contaminated in future generations. 

Q: What’s next?
A: Looking at decontaminating more sites over the long term, particularly contaminated soils of industrial sites. This has tremendous potential for the future, especially if we start genetically engineering plants to enhance their ability to break down hydrocarbons. Ultimately, that’s where we’re going.