The boy saw hundreds of miles of hills lined with sunflowers: long, green stems topped with magnificent golden limbs and bold, deep brown faces that stretched upwards to meet the sun’s light. He pressed his fingers against the thick pane of glass that separated himself from the world beyond and sighed defeatedly as he ran his forefinger down the window’s surface.
“Helianthus annuus, from the Greek Helios, meaning sun.”
His instructor’s words popped into his mind.
“One day, class, they will restore our earth.”
Almost every child in his class favored the sunflower over all others, mainly because that was the only flower they had ever seen. Sure, they had studied plenty of other breeds of flowers in their textbooks, relying on carefully drawn sketches to obtain a somewhat clear picture of what the plants may have looked like back when they were in existence. Yet the sunflower always prevailed. Each morning every child had to chant their Pledge of Peace to the sunflower banner that streamed right above the door of each classroom. The sunflower, as a tangible object and metaphorical symbol, had a venerated place in the hearts of all who beheld it.
But, unlike his peers, the boy hated sunflowers. Their invasive existence served as a reminder of what could never be, offering a false sense of hope to the desperate residents of the Glass Tower. Their deceptive allure was enough to make anyone try to shatter the windows of their transparent prison.
“The sunflower is rather special. It has the ability to remove toxins from the soil.” He tried to recall the word his teacher had used, “They aid in a unique process known as phytoremediation, in which plants remove, transfer, stabilize, and/or destroy contaminants in the soil, water, or air.”
The boy spread his body out on the immaculate linoleum floors, folding his hands under his chin. To anyone of the past, the day might have seemed divine; the sky was a deep, endless blue; the sun shone brighter than it had in years; and the sunflowers swayed gently to an almost imperceptible breeze. Yet such a sight was common for the residents, and most of them had become desensitized to the entire spectacle.
Yet the boy watched, always watched, searching for something to break the vast sea of oppressive sunflowers, the endless sea of gold. But nothing ever did.
“Phytoextraction is a subgroup of phytoremediation, and is a way in which plants remove contaminants from the soil and concentrate them in the harvestable part of the plant.” The boy noticed a few Harvesters picking their way through the fields, surveying the air quality, examining the flowers. “It is due to this remarkable ability that sunflowers have become so useful to us. Their ability to hyperaccumulate toxic materials in the environment gives us hope for our futures here on earth.”
A girl and another boy apprehensively moved around him.
Most residents became nervous when they saw another resident staring through the glass for too long.
The boy reminisced about the beautiful scenery beyond the window. He found the absence of surrounding woodlands or bodies of water odd, since he had recalled from one of his lessons that sunflowers thrived in such environments. Moist soils. He chuckled. His attention turned to the Tower itself. He had asked his father multiple times why they lived in the Glass Tower. His father never gave him the true, direct answer he craved. He said that the leaders of the world had decimated the earth with nuclear war, pollution, exploitation of natural resources, and on and on.
“But why sunflowers, then?”
His father had chuckled and shaken his head. “We discovered their untapped potential and came to realize that they could help us clean up the earth, but only if we removed ourselves from it first.”
“Aren’t we still on earth?”
“Of course, but we had to reduce our carbon footprint in order to allow the planet to heal itself. Thus, the Glass Tower.”
The boy still hadn’t understood why sunflowers were the remedy. He asked his father, “Why not trees? Or any other flower?”
The father sighed. “Such a curious boy,” he said with a small smile. “I guess it’s only fair. Why not trees or other plants? Well, quite a while ago a disaster had occurred in what was once Chernobyl, Ukraine. I think it was—oh—1986? At least, according to the textbooks it occurred during that time—”
“One of the worst nuclear power plant accidents in history—well, before the wars had occurred and what not.
“The sunflower was used to help clean up the surrounding environment. They aided in the removal of radioactive elements from the soil and ponds near the disaster site. Scientists viewed this natural process as a scientific breakthrough and tried to recreate it after the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan. Their attempt failed, however, and it was years before sunflowers were employed for the purpose of nuclear waste management.”
“Why did it fail?” the boy inquired.
“Oh, they think it has something to do with their usage of the wrong sunflower genotype.”
There had occurred a pause in the conversation. The boy tugged on the sleeve of his shirt. “Dad?”
“How long do we have to stay here?”
“Phytoremediation takes a long time. It’s a lengthy process. But don’t you worry, you have everything you need right here.”
“Will I be able to go outside when I’m older?”
The father remained silent and sighed.
The vast expanse of sunflowers stretched onto eternity before the boy’s eyes. He moved over to the wall of glass once more, pressed his oily fingertips against the surface. The sky was a vibrant blue, yet it was empty. And the world, despite the constant companionship of the flowers, was empty as well.
 The sunflower is incidentally an international symbol for nuclear disarmament
 One type of sunflower, the perennial sunflower, has an invasive tendency, making it less popular than the domesticated H. annuus. However, in the case of a nuclear clean-up, the flower’s ability to rapidly spread is an asset; an entire field can be significantly remediated within 3 years of planting with little assistance from nature.
 Sunflowers are able to absorb lead, arsenic, zinc, chromium, copper, and manganese
 Helped remove cesium and strontium
 The process of phytoremediation can stretch into decades, yet despite its protracted nature, the process has a number of benefits. It is cost-effective and available, costing about 25% less than comparable clean-up efforts. It is also less disruptive to the environment and helps maintain the landscape.
published on February 29, 2020.