The Beautiful Water Hyacinth: An Invasive Plant and a Biofuel

Updated on September 6, 2019
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about living things.

Water hyacinth is a beautiful plant that can be a serious problem.
Water hyacinth is a beautiful plant that can be a serious problem. | Source

A Beautiful, Problematic, and Useful Plant

Water hyacinth is a floating plant that is admired for its beautiful pink or lavender flowers set against a background of glossy green leaves. Unfortunately, it often grows aggressively and can be very invasive. In certain areas, the plant causes major problems for people. Water hyacinth has some uses, however. One of them is its ability to act as a biofuel. When fermented on its own or in combination with animal manure, it produces a gas that can be used for cooking and other tasks.

This invasive nuisance is planta non grata in much of the world where it often jams rivers and lakes with uncounted thousands of tons of floating plant matter. A healthy acre of water hyacinths can weigh up to 200 tons.

— University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

Distribution of Water Hyacinth in the Wild

Water hyacinth's scientific name is Eichhornia crassipes. The plant is native to South America. It grows in bodies of fresh water, including lakes, ponds, canals, rivers, marshes, and ditches. It's most abundant in slow-moving water. The plant lives in the wild in the southeastern part of the United States and is also found in California. It has been found in other parts of the United States and in a few areas in Ontario as well but hasn't become permanently established there.

Water hyacinth is sold as an ornamental plant in some parts of North America. If you're tempted to grow it in your garden or on your property, you should investigate your local laws. It may be illegal to plant it where you live because of the problems that it can cause.

A water hyacinth plant with nodules
A water hyacinth plant with nodules | Source

Features of the Plant

Water hyacinth is a perennial plant belonging to the family Pontederiaceae, which is also known as the pickerelweed family. The plant may grow as an annual in temperate climates. Pickerelweed is an aquatic plant that is native to North America and has blue to purple flowers. A cultivated form is sold for aquatic gardens and could be an alternative for someone interested in water hyacinth.

Leaves, Petioles, and Roots

The thick and glossy leaves of water hyacinth form a rosette that floats on the water surface or extends above it. The leaves are wide and are oval or round in shape. They often have a pointed tip. Like the leaves, the petiole (leaf stem) is thick. The petiole and the nodule that it contains have a spongy texture. The interior of a nodule is shown in the photo below. The plant's roots are fibrous or feathery and are purple-black in colour. They usually hang freely in the water.

Flowers

The lovely flowers are born in a spike that may be as long as twelve inches and contain as many as fifteen flowers. The stalk of the spike may be even longer than the spike itself. Each flower has six petals and is pink to lavender in colour. Technically, the petals are tepals. Although they look similar, three of them are true petals and the other three are sepals. The uppermost tepal is decorated with a splash of blue or purple that has a yellow or orange centre.

The flower contains three long and three short stamens (the male structures) and one globular stigma connected to a curved style (part of the female structure). The stigma is composed of three lobes that are tightly pressed together or are separate. The flower is pollinated by insects.

Reproduction

The plant reproduces quickly, which contributes to its invasiveness. The fruit is a capsule that contains many seeds. These can stay viable for many years. The plant also spreads vegetatively. Water hyacinth produces stolons (horizontal stems) that extend sideways and produce new shoots.

The spongy interior of a nodule on a petiole
The spongy interior of a nodule on a petiole | Source

It might be thought that it would be easy to remove the water hyacinth from its habitat, since it isn't attached to a substrate. Unfortunately, individual plants are connected to one another and can form a dense, tangled, and heavy mat. They can also spread rapidly, covering the water.

Harmful Effects of Water Hyacinth Growth

Water hyacinth spreads rapidly and widely in a suitable environment. The mat of plant material over the surface of the water is sometimes as deep as six feet. The plant can create multiple problems.

  • Water hyacinth fills the space needed by other aquatic plants and prevents their growth.
  • The mat of water hyacinth absorbs nutrients that other plants require.
  • It also blocks the light that algae and other photosynthetic organisms in the water need in order to make food.
  • The plant can harm aquatic animals, since it reduces the entry of oxygen into the water and decreases the number of algae that some of them eat.
  • Dead material released from the plant mats can cause problems in the water, such as a change in pH as fungi and bacteria cause the material to decay.

Water hyacinth affects humans as well. Large growths interfere with boat travel, fishing, and swimming. They can also block drainage and irrigation channels. In addition, the water that collects on the leaves of the plants is an ideal habitat for mosquitoes, which can spread disease.

The species can be a major problem in warm climates. In cooler ones, the temperature may be warm enough for the plant to survive but too cold for it to spread rapidly, making it a bit easier to control.

A swamp filled with water hyacinth plants
A swamp filled with water hyacinth plants | Source

Uses of the Plant

There is no doubt that the plant can cause major problems. It also has some uses, however. Some types of livestock eat water hyacinth, especially if it's prepared properly to make it more palatable for them. The plant can also make a good compost due to the nutrients that it contains. In a very interesting development, researchers have discovered that it can be used as a biofuel. In addition, its stems can be dried and used in weaving.

Supporters of water hyacinth point out its beauty, its edibility for livestock, and its use in compost and as a craft material. Detractors mention its invasiveness and its ability to block waterways and interfere with human activities and health. In some places, it may be hard for people to appreciate the seriousness of the problems that the plant can cause in certain parts of the world.

Problems in Kenya Around Lake Victoria

Water hyacinth is a special problem in Kenya around Lake Victoria (and in some other areas near the lake). Many people depend on the fish obtained from the lake for their livelihood. The animals are collected and sold as food. At the moment, a large area of water is blocked by the plants, which are clogging fishing routes. As the plants spread, the ability of boats to find fish and travel through the plant mats is decreasing.

The women who rely on selling the fish from Lake Victoria have other problems in addition to decreased fish to sell. Interestingly, these problems are not caused by water hyacinth and may actually be helped by the plant in combination with technology.

The women smoke the fish caught by the fishermen. They have to walk long distances to collect enough wood to do this. An even bigger problem is that the repeated exposure to the smoke used to cook and preserve the fish is affecting the health of the women, particularly with respect to their lungs. Smoke from burning wood can be irritating for the lungs and make breathing difficult.

Air pollution caused by burning wood and charcoal is a problem for the immediate environment in another way, especially when it takes place indoors. The smoke contains chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. Some PAHs are capable of causing cancer.

Water Hyacinth in Biogas Digesters

Scientists have discovered that the water hyacinth can a great energy source when fermented in a biodigester. Even on its own, it can provide enough energy to support a family's needs in the form of a gas that can produce a flame. When the plant is mixed with chicken manure or cow dung, the results are even better.

In 2018, the village of Dunga on the shore of Lake Victoria received two biogas digesters. The devices use a mixture of water hyacinth and cow dung to produce a gas that can be used to cook food, purify water, and incubate chicks. The material placed in the digester requires a twenty to thirty day fermentation period in order to produce the gas, which is piped to where it's needed. The plant and dung mixture is said to be clean-burning and doesn't produce smoke.

Topographical map of Lake Victoria
Topographical map of Lake Victoria | Source

Lake Victoria is the largest lake in Africa. It's located mainly in Tanzania and Uganda but extends into Kenya. It's said to have a surface area of approximately 23,000 to 26,000 square miles, depending on the source.

Good News and a Financial Problem

The biopdigesters seem to be working well. Women are reportedly suffering from fewer illnesses and they are making more money because they don't have to spend time looking for firewood.

Around fifty additional digesters will be sent to the Kenya in the near future. They could be life-saving for many women, who usually do the cooking. The only problem with the devices is their current price of $750. This is unaffordable for most villages. Hopefully a solution to the problem will be found. Finding a source of funds or a way to reduce the price are important endeavours.

The efforts of individuals and communities can be very important in solving a water hyacinth problem. The video below describes one women's project in which dried stems of water hyacinth are used to create woven items. These items include storage baskets, bags, sandals, and other objects. The use of water hyacinth for handicrafts seems to be explanding.

Water gardeners should only use native or non-invasive plants and are encouraged to ask garden centers for plants that are not invasive.

— Ontario's Invading Species Awareness Program

Dealing With a Water Hyacinth Invasion

The water hyacinth problem needs to be solved. Even when plants are beautiful, they may be undesirable outside of their native habitat and without the usual checks that keep their population under control. I can think of several plants in my part of the world where this applies, including Himalayan balsam (a pretty flowering plant), yellow flag iris, oxeye daisy, and English holly. All four are introduced plants and all are invasive and problematic in some parts of the province.

Ontario's Invading Species Awareness Program recommends several procedures for dealing with water hyacinth in North America. One of its main recommendations is to choose a different aquatic plant for a pond or water garden, as mentioned in the quote above. It also suggests that people put unwanted plants into the garbage instead of discarding them in waterways. Boats that can travel through the plants should travel slowly to reduce breaking the plant mass up and spreading sections to new areas. In addition, boats and other equipment should be washed after travelling through an area infested with water hyacinth.

Planning for the Future

Several solutions are probably needed for the water hyacinth problem, depending on where it exists and how serious it is. Clearing the plant from the water may be helpful but may have to be repeated at regular intervals. Using the gathered plants to help people is an excellent goal.

The women and men who live in areas where the plant is abundant deserve to be able to earn a livelihood safely and efficiently. Perhaps with the aid of biodigesters and the other uses of the water hyacinth they will be able to.

References

  • Eichhornia crassipes information from the University of Florida
  • Water hyacinth facts from the Montana State Government
  • Information about the plant from Ontario's Invading Species Awareness Program
  • Water hyacinth in California from KCET (a non-commercial and educational TV station)
  • Using water hyacinth as animal feed from the Kenya Climate Innovation Center (KCIC)
  • Using water hyacinth for compost from the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)
  • Information about polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs from Tox Town (a National Institutes of Health site)
  • Water hyacinth problems and use as a biofuel from The Guardian

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Linda Crampton

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment
      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        20 hours ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for the comment, Roberta. I hope the biogas digester becomes affordable because it would probably be very helpful for some communities. The water hyacinth is interesting, but it can cause serious problems.

      • RTalloni profile image

        RTalloni 

        26 hours ago from the short journey

        Thanks for this interesting look at water hyacinths. They are singularly beautiful. A lesson in and of itself! Kenyans are amazing people. What they have suffered through government coups is incredible. Thank you for including Acheny Idachaba's video. I wonder if, as markets usually do, the $750 for the biogas digester will go up as the demand grows. It is neat to see what is learned from studies of plants like the water hyacinth.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you for the visit and the comment, Cynthia. I hope the biodigesters are successful in fermenting the water hyacinth as well as the plants combined with animal manure. Both efforts could be very helpful. Thank you for sharing the article as well.

      • techygran profile image

        Cynthia 

        6 days ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

        This is such an interesting article, Linda.

        What a gorgeous flower! How sad that it is a sort of narcissist of the plant world, but we can be somewhat hopeful around fueling the biogas digesters to ferment fish in Kenya. I am going to share this article with someone I know who is already funding similar endeavors in Africa.

        Thank you for your ongoing excellent science articles!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Flourish. The plant can definitely be a nuisance. I hope people get a handle on the problem, too. The ideas that people have come up with seem good. It will be interesting to see how effective they are.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        6 days ago from USA

        Hopefully they can get a handle on the problem before it continues to spiral out of control. I’m glad they found alternative uses for it but it does seem quite a nuisance.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Heidi. Yes, there do seem to be opportunities for entrepreneurs. The plant's features and behaviour are interesting, but it can cause major problems. I hope you have a great week.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much, Maren!

      • heidithorne profile image

        Heidi Thorne 

        7 days ago from Chicago Area

        It's been said a weed is a plant we haven't found a use for. And this one definitely qualifies. Glad they've found a way to turn it into fuel. In addition to lowering the financial cost of the digesters, the crops need to be monitored continuously and carefully to prevent it from becoming an invasive problem. Sounds like opportunity for the right entrepreneur!

        Thanks for sharing more of your knowledge of our amazing planet!

      • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

        Maren Elizabeth Morgan 

        7 days ago from Pennsylvania

        Thank you for your insights which go far beyond aesthetics! You rock!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Dora. I found the Ted Talk inspirational, too. It was educational for me as well, especially with respect to the meaning and significance of particular words. Some people are doing great work in trying to solve the water hyacinth problem and help others at the same time.

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        7 days ago from The Caribbean

        I've always admired the beauty of the water hyacinth, never knew it could be so problematic. I learned much from your article and the Ted Talk you included is inspirational on many levels. Thank you.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the visit, Rachel. I think the water hyacinth is beautiful, too. Like you, I don't have anywhere to grow it. I don't think I would grow it even if I had a pond in my garden because of the problems that it might cause.

        Blessings to you as well.

      • profile image

        Rachel Alba 

        8 days ago

        Hi Linda, The water lily is so beautiful that I never even thought it might cause problems. I don't have a pond or anywhere to grow it, but I love reading about it. Thank you for sharing all of that information.

        Blessings to you.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        8 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Liz. Yes, it is good that the plant can be useful. I hope we get to the point where the positives outweigh the negatives everywhere where the plant is found.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        8 days ago from UK

        I have read your informative article with great interest. I had no idea that this plant could cause so many problems. It is good, though that there is a positive use for it in Kenya to balance out the negatives.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        8 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much, Bill. The biofuel aspect is intriguing. The plant could be very useful as a fuel. I hope this ability is explored further and put to good use.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        8 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Chitrangada. I appreciate your comment. It's interesting that the plant is loved by some people and hated by others. It can certainly cause problems, but it is beautiful.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        8 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you, Pamela. The plant is certainly beautiful when it flowers. It's also interesting because of the different possibilities that it presents. l hope the situation improves in areas where it's a nuisance or harmful.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        8 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Ann. The situation is a bit complicated. The plant can be a serious nuisance, yet it has some interesting uses. Thank you very much for the visit and comment.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        8 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Shaloo. Thanks for the visit and comment The biodigesters could be very helpful. I hope they become more affordable.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        8 days ago from Olympia, WA

        That was totally fascinating. I had no idea about the biofuel aspect. I did know it can be a major problem....wonderfully informative article, Linda!

      • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

        Chitrangada Sharan 

        8 days ago from New Delhi, India

        A very well researched and informative article about Water Hyacinth, which is beautiful, yet harmful in some respect. The flowers look so pretty. I have seen this growing in abundance at some places, but never knew much details about it. But I am sure the locals, who live nearby those areas, must be aware of it’s plus and minuses.

        Thanks for sharing the excellent article and spreading the awareness.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        8 days ago from Sunny Florida

        I had no idea the beautiful water hyacinth could cause so many problems, and yet be an energy source. This is a well-written article that has a wealth of information, and I learned so much. Thanks.

      • annart profile image

        Ann Carr 

        8 days ago from SW England

        Well, this is fascinating, Linda! What a beautiful plant and what a complicated existence, for itself and for others!

        You've presented both sides of its story so well and the biofuel side of it is indeed important. It's good that such things can be harnessed for good even though they present such a problem in many areas.

        Thanks for this educative and absorbing read.

        Ann

      • swalia profile image

        Shaloo Walia 

        8 days ago from India

        Well-researched and informative hub. I wasn't aware of the use of water hyacinth as an alternative fuel. If biodigester is made affordable then it can be a boon for those villagers and also save our precious trees.

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
      ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)