Within the past couple of weeks, Lake O' the Pines has been inundated with clumps of floating plants. Some of these clumps are more like floating islands, up to twenty feet across. Most are smaller a foot or two up to three of four feet across but there are so many of them. It is astounding. Some old time residents said they had never seen anything like it here before.
So what are all these clumps of plants and where did they come from?
It turns out that they are water hyacinths, Eichornia crassipes, and are an invasive species native to tropical and sub-tropical South America. These plants are one of the worse invaders in many countries through out the world. They were widely introduced in North America, New Zealand, Africa, Asia and Australia. In many areas they caused serious damage.
During the World's Fair in New Orleans in 1884, these plants were given away as a gift by a group of visiting Japanese. Soon after the plant was choking rivers, killing fish and even interfering with shipping Louisiana. It has an unbelievable growth rate. In the right conditions it can double its population in two weeks. Each plant can produce thousands of seeds per year.
Their incredible growth can completely cover small lakes and waterways in a short period. This growth prevents sunlight from penetrating the water so other plants and algae die. It can also adversely affect the oxygen levels in the water, killing fish and other aquatic life.
There has been some success in controlling these plants, as well as failures. There are two weevils and a moth that help control the growth and spread. These organisms do show success by reducing the size and growth of the plants in a significant manner. Past attempts using pesticides and even coating the flowers with oil did not work very well.
In 1910, a group known as the New Foods Society came up with a great solution. They wanted to import and release hippopotamus from Africa into the waterways of Louisiana. The hippopotamus would eat the hyacinth and then they could be hunted for their meat and become also be a massive food source. Sounds like a crazy idea - right? You have no idea how close it came to happening.
The American Hippo bill, H.R. 23621 was introduced by Louisiana Congressman, Robert Broussard. It was a subject of debate by the Agricultural Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Far too often, we have seen decisions to import a species to control another species that is out of control and far too often the results have not been good. But not only was that ignored, but the additional benefit of being a food source was raised. It was pointed out to the Agricultural Committee that the U.S. had a history of importing animals to eat. Pigs, chickens, cows and sheep were all non-native species that were imported for food by early settlers. Why not do the same with hippos and solve two problems?
Too crazy to stand a chance - right? Nope. The bill came one vote from passing. That's right. If just one person who voted "no" had voted the other way, we would have hippopotamus in Louisiana.
These plants are very common in the northern part of the lake but not seen near as often in the rest of the lake. With the recent rains, Lake O' the Pines' water level is up about six feet. This sudden rise, caused new growths of the Water Hyacinth and some older ones not securely "rooted" to pull loose from their less than secure moorings. They then floated as clumps wherever the wind would take them or when the wind was light, they traveled with the current. For a while, it looked like a green river in the lake as they flowed along the of moving water from the north end of the lake towards the south. Then the wind helped disperse them all along the lake. Wherever they wash up along shallow water, they will likely settle in and start growing and propagating.
If you look close, they are a beautiful plant and have a really impressive flower. That is why they have been purposely spread throughout the world by well meaning plant lovers. Unfortunately, like with so many non-native species that are introduced to new areas, there are many unexpected consequences. These beautiful plants are horrible additions to our waterways.
In the past they were much more common in the northern part of the lake, but were found in some numbers throughout the waterway. This inundation of so many clumps of water hyacinths will likely cause more problems throughout the lake.