Black or White?
Weeds are plants that are ‘harmful’ and a ‘nuisance’ to the environment. Why? Because they spread rapidly and disrupt crop cultivation, block irrigation canals, and kill local plant varieties. So, they need to be uprooted! But the truth is that weeds are not always bad. Actually, they can help improve the environment. India has some of the most amazing examples of this. Many of these “evil plants” here were introduced deliberately (“Hmm... I think this plant should be grown here”) or accidentally (“Oops!”). But, people do not kill them, they use them! Here’s the saga of four of these special weeds in India...
The killer weed…
‘Satyanashi’ – devastating, the aptly named most infamous weed in recent Indian history caused a dropsy epidemic in Delhi in 1998 killing 60 people and hospitalising thousands. Truly a killer weed! But, communities in Chhattisgarh would beg to differ.
…Or the healer weed?
In the 17th century, ‘satyanashi’ or the Mexican prickly poppy was brought to India from Mexico and Central America. This foreigner has been adopted by traditional healers in Chhattisgarh. Till today Chhattisgarhi healers use different parts of the plant to cure a variety of diseases – however, they will never plant it in their own gardens! For skin diseases, they mix ‘satyanashi’ seeds and mustard seeds and apply the oil. And within a few days the skin is back to normal! In the village of Mudpar, healers burn the seeds and use the ash externally to cure skin afflictions. From ringworm to dermatitis, it is a potent cure. A mixture of its oil with cow’s milk is supposed to be a cure for hysteria, mental illness, and insanity!
And all you asthmatics will find an alternative cure in this plant for a mixture of its root powder with cow’s milk is one of the many effective traditional treatments. Healers boil its leaves in water, and make a decoction, which they use as eye drops. The milky juice secreted is a popular cure for conjunctivitis. The adulteration of mustard oil with ‘satyanashi’ oil causes dropsy, a form of edema (swellings in the body due to water retention), which can be fatal. But Chhattisgarhi healers claim it can be cured by using ‘satyanashi’ itself! Even the Ayurveda and the Unani systems of medicine hold that ‘satyanashi’ is diuretic, sedative, purgative, destroys worms, cures leprosy, various skin-diseases, inflammations, eye diseases and bilious fevers. Phew! It seems as though this weed is an entire pharmacy in itself!
The beautiful beast…
In the backwaters of Kerala you see beautiful flowers, ranging from lavender to pink, bringing peace to your mind. But the water hyacinth has the opposite effect on those who have anything to do with water bodies in India. Nearly a century ago, around 1914-1916, the weed made its way into India from Brazil via Sri Lanka. One of the most troublesome weeds in the world, it blocks waterways and irrigation canals, is a menace to hydro-electric power, and is also a breeding ground for pests and insects. It is one of the toughest weeds to eradicate.
… Or the multi-talented benefactor?
In Maharastra’s Sangli district, there is an unusual sewage treatment plant that has been functioning for around four decades. It treats domestic sewage using the water hyacinth, and also produces biogas from the harvested water hyacinth plants by anaerobic digestion, and the effluent (leftover waste matter) is dried and sold as fertiliser. Raw sewage contains many organic and inorganic chemicals that are dumped into rivers and lakes.
To remove these pollutants, certain aquatic weeds, like the water hyacinth, can be used. The weeds absorb the organic and inorganic compounds from the water, especially metals. While purifying water, they also absorb nitrates, ammonium compounds, phosphates and organic carbon (all essential nutrients in agriculture) and can be used as a source of cheap fertiliser. The weed’s high moisture content makes it useful for biogas production. In fact, water hyacinth is better than cowdung since it decomposes faster and produces a greater volume of gas. For best results, however, mix the two.
Another species introduced from Central America was Lantana. The British planted it in the National Botanical Gardens, Calcutta, in 1807. Introduced for ornamental purposes, it took over India’s landscape in the blink of an eye, killing many native plant species, and becoming one of the 100 most invasive species!
… Or local saviour?
The tribal Soligas of the Male Mahadeswara Hills in Karnataka, however, have turned this bane into a boon with the help of the organisation ATREE. Their livelihood depended on bamboo and rattan (cane) to weave baskets and make other products. But bamboo and cane were threatened by indiscriminate industrial activity. So now how does one preserve bamboo and cane, ensure a livelihood for the Soligas, and control the weed?
The simple solution kills the three problems with one stone – the Soligas now earn their livelihood by making furniture and baskets with lantana. So tell your parents to buy Lantana furniture, which look just like wood but is far cheaper and does a three-in-one! The Lantana flowers throughout the year and forms a large source of nectar and fruits for butterflies and birds that would be unable to survive without them. It is important to remember that ecosystems are constantly changing and even an alien weed can become indispensable to the local environment.
Uncontrollable disease spreader…
The dangerous Parthenium weed entered India by accident. Commonly known as Chatak Chandni, Carrot Grass (it resembles a carrot plant!) or Congress Weed, it came from America along with imported wheat. First spotted in 1956 growing near Pune, it has spread like wild fire all over the country thanks to its incredible ability to survive extreme environmental conditions. Identifiable by its distinct thick white flower heads and widely branched green stems, it is dangerous to crops, animals and human beings, responsible for afflictions ranging from asthma, bronchitis, hay fever to dermatitis.
… Or disease controller?
However, it is actually a useful source of biogas. On pyrolysis (decomposition due to heat in the absence of oxygen) it gives a charcoal that does not produce smoke. Also, it produces the compound parthenin, which is essential in the research for a cure for cancer. The dried fibre is used as cattle feed and is useful for industrial preparations and processes. Finally, it is also a powerful tonic, febrifuge (medication that reduces fever), and analgesic (to relieve pain)!
We want weeds!
Hence, in these days of rapid loss of biological diversity, we should be wary of launching an attack against so-called “dangerous” weeds. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a famous American philosopher, once said “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not been discovered.”