Week 5: Hyacinths, Hippos, and Environmental History

This week, I’d like to talk about an invasive species: the water hyacinth.

This plant is one of the most problematic invasive species in the entire world. Introduced into warm freshwater, the water hyacinth can explode in population, overwhelming lakes, ponds, and rivers with thick floating mats of vegetation. In fact, the hyacinth will quickly cover the entire surface of invaded bodies of water. A patch of hyacinth can double in size roughly every two to three weeks. This blocks sunlight from entering the water, starves the water of oxygen, and prevents water circulation. This will quickly destroy native plants, removing possible competitors to the hyacinth, and starve fish and other animals. The thick mats, when in rivers, float into navigation markers and flood control structures.

The hyacinth was introduced into North America in 1884, brought to the World Fair in New Orleans, Louisiana. The hyacinth escaped, entering the Mississippi River, causing huge problems for steamboat navigation. I’ll come back to this in a bit.

In Florida, the hyacinth was brought back by a visitor to the World Fair, Mrs WF Fuller. Here’s an article that discusses this in a little more detail:


hyacinth sanford


hyacinth monroe


Here are two photos from RICHES, part of the Chase Collection and Sanford Riverfront Collection, respectively. They show hyacinth in Lake Monroe and the St Johns River. The first is circa 1900-1920; the 2nd dates from 1906. You can see how dense the hyacinth can grow. The Daily Kos article, linked above, claims the hyacinth covered some 200 miles of the river within 12 years.

Documents from the FOLA archives show evidence of hyacinth in Lake Apopka as early as the late 1950s, and probably earlier. The documents discuss hyacinth removal programs, seemingly already established at this time. Lake Apopka connects to the St Johns via the Apopka-Beauclair canal, as I discussed earlier. The water hyacinth must have made a long, long journey, through the entire St Johns into the Harris Chain of Lakes, down the canal, and finally into Lake Apopka.

This plant has more significance to the lake, beyond it’s invasive nature, because of the role it’s played in the debates of the origins of the lake’s pollution. One study from the 1960s cited the hyacinth removal program in 1957-1959 as a major source of problematic nutrients for the lake.


That’s a newspaper article discussing the report, which was performed by the Florida State Board of Health. The report claims 3 major factors as responsible for the lake’s polluted state: the 1947 hurricane, which uprooted native vegetation, and the shad and hyacinth removal programs in 1957-1959. These last two programs, which aimed at destroying unwanted inhabitants of the lake, failed to remove nutrients because the shad and hyacinth were left to decay in the lake. I should point out this report was disputed in its day.


Here’s a memo to the Chief of Fisheries for the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, an organization that had been monitoring fishing in Lake Apopka for years (as was its purview). The memo disputes these 3 factors as “major”, considering nutrient inflow from the muck farms, sewage treatment, and citrus industry to be much more decisive in causing the lake’s pollution.

This same argument would be repeated 50 years later in the 1990s. Scientists from the University of Florida claimed these exact same three factors as causing the pollution, and disputed claims that the muck farm buyouts would do anything to help restore the lake.

Click to access AltStableStates.pdf

Here’s the study in question. The basic argument is: the thick mats of hyacinth prevented major wave action from occurring in the broad, shallow lake. After the hyacinth were killed in ’47 and ’59, the lake became “turbid” and sediment was easily stirred up by wind and wave action, preventing aquatic vegetation from becoming firmly rooted. This, and not nutrient loading, was Lake Apopka’s problem.

The Friends of Lake Apopka, of course, disagreed. The buy-out was able to proceed. I’ll be able to show the rebuttals to the UF argument from the 1990s at a later time.

Is removal of invasive species always a good thing?

In fact, efforts had been made in the 1980s to study reintroducing the hyacinth as a potential clean-up method for Lake Apopka! The hyacinth is obviously adept at removing nutrients from water, and is successfully used to treat sewage waste.


I think this is a fascinating plant that really illustrates how complex environmental science can be. Archiving can help reveal the nature of these debates, and show they are sometimes never really settled.

PS: The hyacinth in the Mississippi River? A Lousiana lawmaker in 1910, spurred by the New Foods Society, introduced a novel solution to this invasive species: introduce the hippopotamus to the waters of the Mississippi River. The hippo, it was assumed, would devour the floating vegetation, and the hippo in turn could be slaughtered and sold for its meat. A strange idea, considering the hyacinth is native to South America, not Africa. The bill failed to pass by one vote. The idea of the hippopotamus roaming the shores of the Mississippi is a terrifying one.

Week 5: Hyacinths, Hippos, and Environmental History

Week 3: Oakland Nature Preserve

This week I resumed digitizing the FOLA archives at the Oakland Nature Preserve. I’m currently up to 1996 – a major year in the history of Lake Apopka. The St Johns River Management District was finally authorized to set phosphorus discharge limits for the lake. This would limit the amount of nutrients allowed to enter the lake, and hopefully slow or halt the process of eutrophication. The Lake Apopka Restoration Act, signed by Governor Lawton Chiles, also finally initiated the process of purchasing the North Shore farms.

Another major event in 1996 was the application by the town of Oakland to the Florida Community Trust, requesting purchase of four parcels of land. These parcels were sought by the Friends of Lake Apopka to preserve and restore a section of Lake Apopka shoreline. This land would help make the restoration efforts more tangible to the community. FOLA looked to the Florida Communities Trust, a program under the State Department of Environmental Protection, for assistance in acquiring the land. The Trust aids local communities in acquiring greenspace and preserving valuable natural resources from development. Using money from the St Johns River Water Management District, and Beltway mitigation funds, the parcels were purchased from developers who had agreed to leave the land undeveloped until the purchase could be made.

Today, the preserve sits on 128 acres: 40 acres of upland pines, and 88 of forested wetlands. When the land was purchased, the upland portion was being used for pulpwood production. The pine plantation was recently cut down, and restoration of the area to a Longleaf Pine and Turkey Oak habitat is ongoing. The wetlands themselves were mostly untouched. Restoration here focuses on removing exotic species, mostly from around the waterline.

Facilities include the Ginn Museum, which holds artifacts from around Lake Apopka and the Friends of Lake Apopka Archives. The museum is patterned after Florida cracker cabins, with raised floors and a wrap-around porch. There’s also an original fishing cabin, taken from one of the fish camps that were so prevalent around the lake before the game fish populations collapsed in the late 40s. Included in the archives is a fantastic collection of portraits of fish camp visitors.

Here’s a photo of my “office”:

So now you have some idea of where I work, what I do, and the beginning of pollution in Lake Apopka.

Week 3: Oakland Nature Preserve

Week 2: The Canal and the Muck Farms

Last week, I mentioned briefly the issues Lake Apopka faces. This week, I’d like to talk about the origins of these problems.

Lake Apopka has a long history of human habitation and use – probably as long as 10,000 years. Numerous artifacts, burial sites, and village plots have been discovered along the shores of the lake.

White settlers entered the area in the mid 19th century, farming along the southern shores. When citrus production came to the area, growers turned to the lake and its close proximity to the Harris Chain of Lakes as a solution to their transportation needs. Prior to 1880, Lake Apopka’s outflow was primarily through discharge via the Double Run Swamp, into the Harris Chain. This wasn’t suitable for steamboat navigation, and thus in 1880 the Apopka-Beauclair Canal was excavated, attempting to link the lake to Lake Beauclair through a 12-mile long canal.

This proved more difficult than initially thought, thanks to the area’s marshy soil. The canal wasn’t really passable until 1893, when it was completed by the Delta Canal Company. After completion, water levels in the lake lowered by three feet.

The water level of the lake would prove to be a sore issue over the next few decades for local growers. More water in the lake means more protection from the cold – the lake water holds heat, protecting the citrus groves from deep frost in the winter. Produce farmers on the north side wanted a navigable canal, but citrus growers on the southern shore feared the effect a deeper canal would have. Ultimately, though, a series of deep freezes would drive citrus production away from Central Florida.

Produce farming continued. In 1941, fearing food shortages from World War II, the decision was made by the state legislature to expand farming in the area. A semi-private organization was formed – the Zellwood Water Control and Drainage District. Based in Zellwood, on the northeastern side of the lake, this district had the authority to levy taxes over its members. These taxes were necessary to fund the maintenance and expansion of a massive engineering project: the formation of the muck farms.

Some 9,000 acres of muck land were reclaimed from underneath the lake, through the creation of a levee. This muck land, much like the famed Everglades muck, was valued for its fertility. This area, once wetlands that helped to filter the lakewater, became devoted to “truck farming”, commercial farms focused on exporting produce.

After the levee was completed, the muck land was now nearly two feet below the surface of the lake, requiring major pumping operations to keep dry. Additionally, the muck itself dries out, shrinking in size by an incredible amount. To fight this, the mucklands would be regularly flooded when not in use, keeping them wet for the next season’s growing. When it was time to farm again, this water would be pumped out – into Lake Apopka. Millions of gallons of water laden with fertilizer and pesticide was now being discharged into the lake yearly.

And remember that canal? Not only was this water polluting Lake Apopka – it was being carried into the Harris Chain of Lakes, and through those, into the St John’s River.


Here’s a photo I took of the last of the pump houses. This is the original structure, built in 1941, and it’s about two and a half stories tall. Today, its used by the St Johns River Water Management District, to keep the North Shore Restoration Area (post muck farm) flooded with water.

This link is to an item from the collection, a pamphlet describing the Zellwood District and its operations. It was written by Henry Swanson, an agricultural extension agent, who was heavily pro-agriculture. You can get an idea oved the kinds of criticisms being levied against the district, even as early as 1962, from Swanson’s rebuttals .


Week 2: The Canal and the Muck Farms