Random Facts About … Hippos and Hyacinths — a Match Almost Made in the U.S.

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By David Martin – 

When we opened our internet tubes this week, out waddled a big old hippopotamus with a mouthful of water hyacinths. We almost had that scene playing out in southern U.S. waterways. Let’s start with the water hyacinth’s role in this near-disaster. 

This aquatic plant with fibrous roots and stalks that bear flowers gets all its nutrients from the water, although the hyacinth will also root in the mud of ponds, creeks, rivers, and lakes. The plant originates in the Amazon basin of South America where it is kept in check by beetles and moths native to the hyacinth’s home range. And it does need to be kept in check. Forming interconnected mats thick enough that people can walk on them, the hyacinth reproduces so prodigiously that the mats can completely cover a lake, impede navigation on rivers, and suck enough oxygen out of the water to kill fish. 

The first water hyacinth was brought to the U.S. in 1884 during the Cotton States Expedition in New Orleans. Some genius thought it would make a nice water ornamental plant. It quickly spread throughout the South and is now officially considered a federal noxious weed. Maybe the only good things that can be said about the water hyacinth is that its appetite for nutrients and waste products in the water is so voracious that it can clean up dirty ponds and be used in water treatment plants. Also, it’s a beautiful plant with enchanting flowers, which is why people keep bringing it home all over the globe, enabling this pretty little devil to wreak havoc everywhere. 

Hippopotamuses love water hyacinths, and each hippo can consume a couple hundred pounds of the plant daily. So why not bring hippos to the southeastern waterways of the U.S. and … wait a second, that’s a harebrained idea that could originate only from a crazy place like the United States Congress. 

Yes. Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. was experiencing a meat shortage. The population was booming and the cow-pig-chickensheep industry couldn’t keep up. Robert Broussard, a congressman from Louisiana, thought he could help supply meat to the hungry U.S. population while at the same time introduce an animal that would gobble up the water hyacinths that even back then were devastating waterways. As a bonus, the hippos would be raised in swamps and bayous that were unsuitable for raising traditional farm animals. 

The bill that Broussard introduced never got passed into law, so hippo farming never got established in the South. Thank God. Not counting other humans, hippos are the most dangerous mammal in the world, killing some 500 people annually. They are aggressive and will not hesitate attacking people in the water or on land. 

But how does a hippo steak taste? Apparently, it is similar to beef but sweeter and tougher and somewhat gamier. With hippo meat lower in cholesterol but much fattier, it apparently can be cooked without any oils and still remain juicy. 

We might also ask a hippo how humans taste, because there have been several reports of hippos killing and eating people. The killing part is absolutely true, and bodies have been recovered after a hippo attack showing that the river horse (the name Greeks gave to the hippopotamus) did indeed chomp down on its human victim. But no actual hippo consumption of a person has been confirmed. Maybe we’re too gamey.

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