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Chapter 2 The Water Hyacinth

2.1 The plant Eichhornia crassipes (Martias) Solms, (water hyacinth) originated in the rich and diverse rain forests of the Amazon River Basin. On account of its great natural beauty, even in the 19th century inflorescence it was taken around the world as a botanical speciality, and decorated ornamental ponds. From the beginning of the 20th century it began to find its way leaf into fresh water rivers and lakes throughout the tropics and subtropics, where almost every country is affected. In biological terms, the water hyacinth is an aquatic Petioles macrophyte, a monocotyledon, with aerenchyma of the family Pontederiaceae. New The mature plant consists of plant long, fibrous roots which may Fibrous be up to three metres in length, Fragile stolon roots with rhizomes, buoyant petioles, small hairs stolons, leaves, inflorescences and fruit clusters. The petioles Figure 2.1 Drawing of water hyacinth are the leaf stems, and the stolons are the runners which form new plants. The inflorescence bears between 6 and 120 lily like violet and yellow flowers, most commonly between 8 and 15. The fruit is a capsule, containing up to 450 seeds. Altogether, the plants can grow up to a metre high, although rather less than 50cm is more typical. The plant is given its buoyancy Figure 2.2 Cross-section of a petiole and mobility by the air-filled tissue showing the air spaces in its stems, known as aerenchyma,
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and its leaves and bulbular leaf stems (petioles), see Fig. 2.2. For this reason, the plant can float with the wind or water currents, and establish itself in completely new sites. The plant reproduces itself primarily via its stolons, which are horizontal stems that produce new plants at their tips, (see Fig. 2.3). These stolons are very fragile, and can easily break off and the new plant be carried along by the current to some new Figure 2.3 The fragile stolon with a new location. Such reproduction is plant at its tip known as clonal propagation, because the new plants are identical genetic copies of the parent plants, produced without any sexual fertilisation. Reproduction occurs also via seeds, which can remain dormant for up to 15 years. Semi-arid areas, reservoirs and waterways can dry up and the plant disappear, but germination occurs once the rains come. In times of flood wilted plants are deposited at the high water mark, where they die and leave their seeds, in wait for the next soaking. The roots are fibrous, and carry a multitude of fine hairs which act like a net for nutrients and suspended particles. Perhaps this explains why water hyacinth grows best where there are high levels of nutrients of nitrogen and phosphorus. These occur as a result of many forms of human activity, including cultivation with fertilisers, the use of washing powders, and industrial activities, particularly in the processing or manufacturing of foods, e.g. brewing. They are present also in untreated wastewater and sewage which enters water systems from homes and industries. Without these human influences, it would not thrive! Other ideal conditions include a high air temperature, high relative humidity, long sun exposure, and a pH of between 4.0 and 8.0. Like most flowers which are at their best when the soil is Figure 2.4 Water hyacinth impoverished, water hyacinth has the best flower
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flowers when the nutrients in the water are in short supply. The plant is very able to adapt to varying circumstances. The smallest plants grow at the waters edge and are rooted. In deeper, calm water they are larger, but usually still rooted. In deeper, well-aerated, calm water, colonies come together to form continuous mats or rafts of living and decaying water hyacinth. Such floating rafts can be up to 45 hectares in size. They are mobile, and can be swept along by water currents in lakes and rivers, and be blown by the wind. Thus they accumulate against river banks and in sheltered bays of lakes. These mats can be up to two metres thick, and so dense that people can walk on them. They are certainly impossible to penetrate with any sort of boat. The mats deplete the water of dissolved oxygen, and consequently fish and phytoplankton are unable to survive (see Fig. 2.5). In its native Amazonia, because of its ability to float, water hyacinth is able to survive the monthly fluctuations in river depth, which cause problems for many other species. It is kept in check, however, because the annual flood waters, which cause the river to rise by about ten metres or so, cause a torrent which sweeps the water hyacinth out to sea. It certainly cannot survive in salt water. After a flood, some water hyacinth will continue to thrive in small lakes and pools, only to be left hanging in the trees after the next high water! 2.2 Rate of Growth Water hyacinth has become such a major problem because of its colossal rate of reproduction. It is very efficient both in fully exploiting aquatic nutrients and in utilising solar energy for profuse biomass production. In one growing season, 25 plants can give rise to 2 million plants, covering 10,000 square metres (i.e. equivalent to an area of 100 by 100 metres), and weigh as much as a fully loaded jumbo jet! Dependent on the time of year and location, the number of plants doubles in number, and therefore in Figure 2.5 Part of an extensive biomass, in between 6 and 15 days. water hyacinth mat Between 100 and 500g fresh weight is produced per square metre per day, that is between 400 and 1700 tons per hectare per year. Given that the dry weight is about 5-7% of fresh weight, this means that one square metre of water surface
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yields between 2 and 9 kg dry weight of water hyacinth per year, and one hectare yields between 20 and 120 tons of dry water hyacinth per year. The results of such rampant growth are sometimes catastrophic. In regions as diverse as Florida, USA, Japan, Indonesia, Bangladesh and throughout most of Africa irrigation channels are fouled, freight ships and fishing boats alike are hindered, the quality of drinking water is affected and fish stocks are reduced. In many tropical regions, people's livelihoods are threatened and the economy is severely affected. In Papua New Guinea, people have died as a result of all the problems that the infestation of water hyacinth in their rivers has presented, the Figure 2.6 This boat won't go far - isolated near Port degraded water, Bell, Uganda poorer health, lack of ability to travel with their canoes to catch fish, or to their gardens or to hunting areas. Even in the technically sophisticated United States of America, local industry in the south has suffered financial losses as a result of the river transport of goods such as corn, cotton and timber being impeded. In paragraph 3.3, we describe in some detail how, during the past nine years, water hyacinth has colonised Lake Victoria in East Africa. There it has caused severe problems for millions of people who depend on the lake for their livelihoods.

Chapter 2 The Water Hyacinth

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