Water Hyacinth: When Water Plants Escape

Native gardeners hear a lot about invasive plants from other areas. Water hyacinth is one of the most beautiful, and infamous, of these escapees.

Jill Staake

One of the great pleasures of living in Florida is the access to water, both salt and fresh, everywhere you look. A recent weekday afternoon found me on an unexpected boat trip down the Hillsborough River in Tampa, where the hot sun was tempered by soft breeze over the water and cypress trees draped in Spanish moss lined the banks. Among all the native vegetation, we noted large blooms of the beautiful purple water hyacinth… so lovely, so terribly invasive.

Water Hyacinth

It can be hard to understand why something so pretty can be bad. After all, water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) was originally introduced to the U.S. for the 1884 World’s Fair in New Orleans, where visiting groups of Japanese gave them away (strange, considering the plant is native to the Amazon) to those who admired them for their beautiful flowers. Within no time, though, this plant was choking waterways from Louisiana to Florida and beyond. With no natural predators to keep the fast-growing foliage in check, it soon invaded rivers and ponds, covering them completely and keeping sunlight from reaching the waters below. Native plants died, fish died, wildlife died… a pond covered in water hyacinth looked beautiful above, but was completely devoid of life below.

Water Hyacinth

Many ways of controlling the plant were tried, but when a plant is capable of doubling its population in a matter of weeks, and floating seeds can last 28 years, there’s not much that can be done. One of my favorite suggestions, the so-called Hippo Bill, was made by a Louisiana congressman and involved the importation of hippos into American waterways. The hippos would eat the water hyacinth, and humans would eat the hippos. Fortunately, this bill was defeated (by only one vote!), but water hyacinth continues to plague southern waterways. (Learn more about this invasive water plant here.)

Water Hyacinth

In areas that receive frost or freezes, water hyacinth can safely be cultivated in a home pond. You can purchase it in aquarium supply shops in states where it’s not banned, and care is extremely easy. Take care before deciding to add this plant to your home pond, though – even in temperate zones, it can get out of hand quickly and take over in a single season. Learn more here.

Water Hyacinth

The lesson? Beautiful isn’t always best. Whether in water or on dry land, take the time to learn about every plant you add to your garden, and make sure it’s a good fit for your environment and the local wildlife there.

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