Wednesday, January 30, 2013

WATER HYACINTH – PLAGUE OR CLEAN-UP DETAIL?

Water Hyacinth
(Eichhornia crassipes)
Yesterday, I heard from many readers who enjoyed the essay on the Japanese magnolia tree, a tree that brightens the late winter landscape and heralds the beginning of spring in south Louisiana. Today, I thought I’d do a counterpoint feature on one of the Deep South’s not-so-well-received plants – the noxious water hyacinth.

Boaters and fishermen in south Louisiana often encounter and utter a few expletives about the exotic water hyacinth, so aptly described in Dr. Victoria I. Sullivan’s new nature guide, Why Water Plants Don’t Drown. This book covers the survival strategies of aquatic and wetland plants and includes a beautiful illustration of the prolific water hyacinth, the bane of Louisiana boaters.

According to Sullivan, the water hyacinth was introduced at the International Cotton Exposition in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1884 when visiting members of the Japanese government distributed souvenir water hyacinth plants from Venezuela. Those who received the beautiful flowering plants with their purple-petaled blooms and yellow bull’s eye nectar guides regarded them as treasures and transferred the plants to garden and farm ponds near New Orleans. Of course, they quickly multiplied, and people began to dispose of them in the nearest lakes and rivers to get rid of them.

Water hyacinth clogging
a waterway
It seems that water hyacinth can form mats that double in size within a few days, and the leaf blades of the plant catch the wind like sails, moving them over the water. The rafts of plants can become entangled in boat propellers and stall the boats of fishermen. State and federal governments in southeastern states budget billions of dollars annually to deter the spread of water hyacinth. The rafts of the plant are large and thick, and deprive photosynthetic organisms under them of light, thus reducing their oxygen production. But water hyacinth release oxygen into the water through their roots.

Boaters and fishermen may regard the water hyacinth as a nuisance, but this exotic plant does benefit other plants and animals. Seeds of the water-spider orchid and water primrose germinate and grow on the large, thick mats of water hyacinth, and the feathery roots of the plant form habitats for small animals. In addition to these benefits, water hyacinth help clean water that has become polluted by household waste and fertilizer run-off.

This feature about the water hyacinth is included in a section entitled “Floaters” in Why Water Plants Don’t Drown, which features plants that float on the surface of the water and have roots that hang freely in the water.

The two arresting illustrations in this blog were rendered by Susan Elliott, an artist, ecologist, and writer who lives in Montrose, Colorado – Elliott illustrated Why Water Plants Don’t Drown and note cards featuring some of the plants contained in this nature guide.

Copies of Why Water Plants Don’t Drown and packages of cards featuring some of the plants can be ordered from Pinyon Publishing either online or by mail at 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403.


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