Radioactive bushes

Ericameria nauseosa at Red Rock Canyon, Nevada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On my way to somewhere else on the Internet I found…

Rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa) is a shrubby perennial in the Aster family native to the arid North American West.  It’s a hardy plant that thrives in poor conditions, sending down deep roots even in coarse and alkaline soil. I’m sure I’ve seen it in Nevada but it wasn’t blooming at the time.

For most of the year rubber rabbitbrush — also called chamisa or gray rabbitbrush — looks a lot like sagebrush but in the late summer and fall it produces clusters of pungent-smelling yellow flowers that light up the landscape.  Pungent is probably a kind word for the smell.  Some compare it to the smell of a wet armpit.  Bees like it, though.

Its names fascinate me.

  • “Rubber” comes from the rubber content of its sap which was studied as an alternate source of rubber during World War II.  The idea didn’t catch on.
  • “Rabbitbrush” could mean  that rabbits eat it — and some probably do — but for the most part its forage for deer and antelope.  What do rabbits do with it?  Perhaps they hide under it.
  • The word “nausea” sticks to this plant even after a name change from Chrysothamnus nauseosus to Ericameria nauseosa.  Apparently nauseosa is another way to describe its smell.

But what really caught my eye was the fact that in one valley in New Mexico these plants are radioactive.

As mentioned above, rubber rabbitbrush will grow in poor soil and send down deep roots.  In Bajo Valley near Los Alamos there’s an old nuclear waste dump.   Years after the area closed, rubber rabbitbrush grows above it and those particular shrubs are radioactive.

According to Wikipedia, “Their roots reach into a closed nuclear waste treatment area, mistaking strontium [strontium-90] for calcium due to its similar chemical properties.  The radioactive shrubs are “indistinguishable from other shrubs without a Geiger counter.”

This is happens to humans too.  Our bodies mistake strontium for calcium and put it in our bones.  It’s good news when treating osteoporosis with non-radioactive strontium but bad news if your water contains radioactive strontium from industrial, mining or Marcellus shale drilling waste.

When in doubt, test your water.

But don’t worry about radioactive bushes.  You’d have to go to Bajo Valley, New Mexico to find them.

(photo by Walt Siegmund, GNU Free License via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original.)


p.s. On Monday October 31 at 7:30pm, WQED will broadcast Managing Marcellus, an unusual look at Marcellus issues through the lens of a locally-produced play, its performers, and their real-life counterparts.

7 thoughts on “Radioactive bushes

  1. I have added a link to the body of the blog (linked on “When in doubt”) that clarifies how Marcellus strontium can get into municipal drinking water.

    Here’s EPA’s info on strontium:
    See the end for general information on “how to stay safe.”

    Water testing: Get certified testing done by a professional water testing company. They’ll know what to do.

  2. Hah, guess what I have 3 of growing in our backyard? You are right, the bees love them. And so do butterflies and tarantula hawks. Hopefully mine aren’t radioactive, although I can drive up and pick some ones that are for you ; )

  3. Stephen, try using your Geiger counter 😉 . Now I know to get for Christmas. I’ve been getting tired of always borrowing my Dad’s. 😉

  4. I actually wonder if I could send you some of those flowers, or if the Post Office would stop them? Want to do an experiment?

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