The Havoc-Wreaking Plant That Nearly Brought Hippos To The U.S.

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It’s been doused with oil, torched by flamethrowers, mowed down, laser beamed and set upon by Argentine weevils — but you shouldn’t feel too sorry for the violet-colored, violence-disposed water hyacinth.

This story is inspired by Achenyo Idachaba’s TED Talk — click above to watch.

The pretty little weed is native to South America, but across the world and throughout the decades, it has invaded innocent rivers and streams. It’s choked other water life and diminished fishermen’s yields. The plant has singlehandedly stalled local economies in countries from Nigeria to South Africa and prevented children from going to school for days, even weeks on end, recounts Achenyo Idachaba in a TED Talk that premieres today. “Who would have thought that this plant with round leaves, inflated stems and showy lavender flowers would cause such havoc?”

Idachaba’s solution — which she deployed in her native Nigeria — was to rewrite the story around the purple pest. Its stubborn hardiness and very fecundity could make it an asset, she saw. The stems could be dried and woven into products like purses, tableware and baskets, all the while fueling jobs, local production and economic growth.

All good. But while Idachaba’s solution has proven more durable than others, it is not, perhaps, the most colorful. For the beginnings of that bizarre, whimsical tale, we look to New Orleans, in 1884, and its World’s Fair. A beautiful opening day brought huge crowds and exotic exhibitions. But somewhere in all this celebration of connectedness and incipient globalization lurked the water hyacinth, which had made its way into the fairgrounds, free of charge. It would never leave.

Eleven years later, the plant had spread to Florida, where it formed a 100-mile-long chain that, similar to the situation in present-day Nigeria, gummed up water channels and killed fish. Hacking them down didn’t work. Neither did “throwing oil on the plants,” Louisiana Rep. Robert Broussard told the House Committee on Agriculture in 1910. “[T]he plant is there just as luxuriant as it was before,” he lamented. But Broussard had a cure-all. He would fight one nonnative species by importing another: It stood on four legs, was omnivorous and voracious and was known as a hippopotamus.

The idea was bizarre and would be expensive, but it had a certain elegance: The hippos would eat the very bad hyacinth and Americans would eat the surprisingly tasty hippos, answering a meat shortage at the time. Supporters estimated that by feeding on water hyacinth, the Southeast could produce “1,000,000 tons of meat per annum, worth $100,000,000.” One proponent of the bill testified that the hungry hippos “would turn the plague that they now have in the South into good, wholesome flesh for our people.” But what did hippo meat taste like? A combination of pork and beef, the committee was told. “Do white men like it?” persisted the chairman. “Many of them do,” came the response.

Press response to Broussard’s idea wasn’t half bad. One writer at the Colorado Springs Gazette pointed out exotic animals were being imported all over the world: If Brits eat Australian kangaroo, why shouldn’t Americans eat hippo? And the political setting was auspicious. It was the Progressive Era, a time of big, wild ideas in the halls of America’s legislatures, and reforms were being passed left and right.

Nonetheless, the measure fizzled. By 1913, naysayers were making hay. “A cross section of Broussard’s brain, taken in a moment of meditation, would look like part of a circus parade,” one columnist wrote in the Boston Herald. In all the hoopla over the prospect of eating exotic animals, it seems, the water hyacinth issue retreated from the headlines. Subsequent solutions didn’t come cheap. One article in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal claims that, before World War II, the U.S. spent more than $1 billion trying to clear the streams of Louisiana and used machines that cost $100,000 to whack weeds.

Today, containing the water hyacinth in the southeast U.S. remains a significant problem, experts say, and apart from the occasional April Fool’s joke, no one is much thinking about bringing hippos in to solve it. Maybe it’s time to follow Idachaba’s lead and help the plant do more good than harm.

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