Can willow help us to decontaminate land, naturally?

Whilst know that the willow tree is beautiful, we don’t as often consider the ways in which it might be helpful. Well, a Montreal neighbourhood in Canada is about to change this by planting willow trees on a former piece of industrial land to turn it into a garden as part of a four-year natural decontamination project to try and rehabilitate the land.

It appears that the trees’ roots have the ability to remove oil and toxic materials from the ground, slowly reversing years of industrial activity which have left the ground contaminated.

Up until now, the city cleaned the soil by excavating it and removing it by truck – an unsatisfactory fix in that didn’t actually clean it, it simply moved the problem from one place to another. However, with this solution, the contaminants become concentrated in the branches and leaves of the trees which can then be cut off and burned without having to displace and replace any soil.

The advantage of willow is that it is fast-growing, very hardy and can survive harsh winters – even in poor and polluted soil. The trees start small when planted, but as they grow, they actually absorb the pollutants in the soil and the micro-organisms produced by their roots break down chemical compounds that can’t be absorbed.

Though this is initially a four-year project, scientists believe that the decontamination process as a whole, using willows, may take up to 15 years.

 “There’s a large variety of willow trees, willow shrubs, and we prefer to work with those plants because they can suffer,” explained Michel Labreque, an associate professor of science and biology at Universite de Montreal. “They can resist the kind of conditions we find here.”

Inevitably, despite their toughness, scientists say there’s a limit to the level of pollution the willows can endure and if a site is too contaminated, they may not be able to grow well at all.

However, if the decontamination is successful, this is a great boost in terms of sustainable technology as it is environmentally-friendly, low- maintenance and much cheaper than previous methods – a natural way to clean up a mess.

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