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Desert Diary


Scientists are curious folk and always want to know why things work. Some things can be fascinatingly frustrating because we know they work, but we can't quite figure out why. Such is the case with a technique known as "phytoremediation". It uses plants that thrive in contaminated soil and clean up toxic materials.

Our Chihuahuan Desert cottonwood, a type of poplar, has relatives known for their ability to destroy dry-cleaning solvents. Other plants sop up arsenic and lead, and some were even used to clean up poisoned ponds near Chernobyl. Although scientists are still testing various plants, both to learn how and why they do this and to look for any problems, phytoremediation is becoming increasingly popular. After all, it's much less expensive—and more attractive—to bring in waste-loving plants rather than treating contaminated land in traditional ways.

Is this the future for our world—a way we can survive despite producing vast amounts of toxic waste? It may help, but a better solution would be to avoid contaminating our precious environment in the first place.
pen and ink

Listen to the Audio (mp3 format) as recorded by KTEP, Public Radio for the Southwest.


Contributor: Kodi R. Jeffery, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.



Environmental Protection Agency. 1998. A Citizen’s Guide to Phytoremediation. USEPA, Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (5102G), EPA 542-F-98-011, August.

Schmiedeskamp, M. 1997. Pollution-Purging Poplars, Trees that break down organic contaminants. Scientific American, December.

Web Resources

Phytoremediation. A far-reaching site through the Missouri Botanical Garden: much information and numerous helpful links.

Poplars in phytoremediation—technical.