What Is Water Hyacinth?
By Marisa Sittheeamorn
An Origin Story
Water hyacinth is a natural aquatic plant originating from Brazil that was once valued for its ornamental beauty. The plant had a unique flower which made its way into park and garden ponds in the late 1800s. Since then, however, water hyacinth has gained a deserved reputation as one of the most invasive weed species in the world.
Now, the plant is especially infamous for blocking wetlands and waterways, damaging local habitats, killing wildlife, and disrupting urban infrastructure. Major infestations suck the oxygen out of bodies of water, increase water loss, and provide perfect breeding conditions for mosquitoes. It’s rapid growth makes water transportation, boating, swimming, fishing, and other recreational activities less enjoyable and sometimes impossible.
Despite originating in the Amazon basin, the flower and its weeds now pose serious environmental threats in Asia, Africa, North America, and the Oceanic region.
A Thai Tale
Thailand is one of the many countries that has fallen victim to the pesky weed. So, how did water hyacinth end up in Thailand?
Legend has it that the flower was originally introduced into Thailand by HRM King Rama V following his travels to Indonesia in 1901. The monarchs noticed the unique beauty of the flower and displayed it in a jar around mansions. As fate would have it, and by natural disaster, the plant accidentally made its way into a canal during a flood.
Since then, the weed has ravaged Bangkok’s waterways and dispersed its way around the country. The nation’s year-round hot climate has worked in its favor, providing preferable growing conditions for the flower’s continued terror. The Chao Phraya, Thailand’s major river which weaves through the capital city of Bangkok and into the Gulf of Thailand, is in constant battle with the troublesome weed.
Over the past century, there have been several royal, military, and government actions aimed at curbing the spread of water hyacinth - all without success. In 2016 alone, the Prime Minister deployed soldiers, heavy machinery, and boats to collect more than 170,000 tonnes of water hyacinth in various sections of the river. In some areas, thick sheets form impenetrable clusters of the plant up to 3km long, causing floods in Bangkok and the central region.
According to Duangporn Suwanagul, an Associate Professor, Biologist, and Dean of Faculty of Agricultural Innovation at Rangsit University, the authorities “still need a long-term strategy to control and manage it.” When the weeds are simply cleared, they’re almost guaranteed to grow back.
The Sustainable Silver Lining
So where does this never-ending war against water hyacinth leave us today?
The good news is that not all hope is lost. Various technologies and innovations have been introduced to make use of the worrisome weed.
The plant itself is edible and can be used for animal feed, or as a natural filter to absorb toxins and chemicals in wastewater. Researchers at Kasetsart University won a National Research Council of Thailand award in 2015 when they found a method to turn water hyacinth into cooking gas. The method has since been taught through royal initiatives that organize regular workshops within local communities living on the waterways to produce cooking gas from the plant themselves.
When dried, the flower offers many other uses. It is used as an eco-friendly material to make furniture, trays, baskets, bags, and other household items. When it’s dried stems are chopped, the plant provides an earth-conscious zero-waste packing solution. At Joybox, we rely on the repurposed filler to protect your most fragile items.
Queensland Government (2017): “Water Hyacinth”
Bangkok Post (2016): “War on Weed” by Anchalee Kongrut
Bangkok Post (2016): “Water hyacinths to be cleared from chao phraya” by Terry Fredrickson
Bangkok Post (2016): “Thai designers see beauty in floating garbage” by Kanokporn Chanasongkram