Look out Little Shop of Horrors, there's a new plant in town. But unlike the people-eating plants in the movie, this brake fern relies on arsenic to survive.
According to a team of University of Florida researchers, the brake fern is the first known plant to remove arsenic from contaminated soil at high levels. In fact, the plants need the element to survive and thrive — they accumulate arsenic in their fronds at concentrations of up to 200 times the concentration in the contaminated soil.
This gives hope to the idea that the ferns can be used to clean up arsenic-contaminated sites for a fraction of the cost of traditional remediation methods. “[You can] grow it, cut it, make hay, bale it and haul it to a managed, good incinerator that controls release during burning,” says Rufus L. Chaney, research agronomist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Once the fern becomes ash, it can be transferred to a landfill.