Menacing Weed or Wonder Plant?

©Peter Chadwick/DK Images

©Peter Chadwick/DK Images

We’ve written about the invasive species water hyacinth on these pages before, discussing its environmental impact as well as its material value for eco-development projects. But we haven’t seen stories such as this one from Conservation Magazine where there’s a positive side to what many people call the “weed from hell.”

The scene at Florida’s Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Kings Bay last October would have been familiar to anyone who has ever engaged in the battle to control the spread of invasive plants. Eager volunteers scurried about the shoreline of this manatee wintering ground, carting large plastic bins stuffed with water hyacinth, a notorious aquatic weed that’s caused headaches on five continents. Closer inspection, however, would have revealed the activity to be anything but business as usual: instead of hauling water hyacinth out of the bay, the conservationists were putting it back in—almost 4,300 gallons’ worth by day’s end.

Those volunteers were taking part in a bold pilot project that is the latest chapter in a half-century-long ecological story that reads like a fable. It starts with a well-intentioned campaign to rid Kings Bay of the water hyacinth, an aggressive nonnative species. Next come decades of additional control measures and a tragic downward spiral that transformed these crystal-clear waters into an unpleasant soup of slimy green algae. Then the story takes an unexpected turn, back to its original antagonist. Only this time, Bob Knight, the wetlands restoration ecologist leading this pioneering project, has recast water hyacinth as the unlikely hero. He believes this South American native, if controlled, could help solve the algae problem and return the bay’s ecosystem to a more desirable state. The irony in this approach is not lost on anyone involved.

Sometimes referred to as the “weed from hell,” water hyacinth is a free-floating plant with an explosive growth rate. After being introduced to Americans at the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition held in New Orleans in 1884, water hyacinth seduced gardeners with its beauty and hardiness. From the ponds and lakes where it was intentionally planted, it quickly spread—due in part to floods. But a bigger boost came from post–World War II development. As humans dammed rivers, drained wetlands, and filled water bodies with sewage and fertilizer, they created ideal water hyacinth habitat. At its worst, it can form impenetrable mats, boost mosquito numbers, and deplete the water of dissolved oxygen—effectively suffocating fish. Many ecologists have spent their careers trying to eradicate water hyacinth, and the idea of encouraging its presence, especially in an idyllic spot such as Kings Bay, leaves them almost speechless.

Supporters of the initiative, on the other hand, insist there’s nothing to fear. For one thing, the plant has persisted in the backwaters of Kings Bay—for the most part innocently—for decades. It’s almost impossible to eradicate. However, it is easy to contain and control, especially compared to algae. In addition to shading out algae, water hyacinths can provide habitat for fish and other wildlife. Their dangling root masses filter algae and promote denitrification. What’s more, they’re veritable salad bars for manatees. “If you ignore the label ‘exotic’ and focus on function,” says Jason Evans, a University of Georgia ecologist and advisor on the Kings Bay project, “this plant is almost exactly what you would think this ecosystem needs.”

Kerala has been facing the problems of the plant’s explosive growth for decades, with little success in eradication. It clogs waterways up and down the backwater system. Cottage industries and artisanal workshops use the plant as raw material in regions with a strong basket weaving tradition, but the process of collection and drying is quite labor intensive, and an uphill battle with the explosive amount of plants.

At RAXA Collective we’re supporting a local workshop by commissioning and purchasing items for use at our properties.

Water hyacinth products

Water hyacinth products

From left to right: Back row – 2 sizes of water hyacinth waste paper bins. Middle row: Tender Coconut basket, covered fruit basket. Front row: loose paper tray

The linked article comes around full circle with the story of whether the water hyacinth is a help or a hindrance to Kings Bay. Advocates claim that it purifies the water systems of heavy metal toxins and other contaminants. In China it’s actually being grown in floating pens to be harvested for fertilizer and biogas production.The final answer seems that there isn’t a black and white one at all.

Read the entire article here.

One thought on “Menacing Weed or Wonder Plant?

  1. Pingback: TNC: Prairie Restoration with Wild Seeds | Raxa Collective

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