Water chestnuts

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(HOST)The southern arm of Lake Champlain is host to several varieties of nuisance plants. Commentator Tom Slayton recently got better acquainted with one of them.

(SLAYTON) Even though European water chestnut is an invasive aquatic, a nuisance that infests many areas of southern Lake Champlain, it’s actually a pretty interesting plant. Its fleshy, bright-green leaves form a circular rosette about a foot across that floats on the surface of the water. Little air sacs in each stem enable the rosette of leaves to float, and a long, viney root connects with the muck below.

But water chestnuts can multiply aggresively, forming thick mats of vegetation which crowd out less aggressive native plants, turning the water beneath them dark and sterile. Then, nothing can live there but more water chestnuts.

The strategy for controlling water chestnuts is simple: pull them up before they release their seeds. That prevents the plant, an annual, from multiplying, and stops them dead in the water. (So to speak!)

Since 1982, more than five million dollars has been spent on water chestnut removal in Lake Champlain, but public funds for the project go up and down, and so the Vermont Chapter of the Nature Conservancy has organized a volunteer program to help with removal. Earlier this month, a group of friends and I volunteered.

Whitney Creek joins Lake Champlain just south of the Champlain Bridge, creating a broad, swampy bay more than seventy acres in size. It sparkled prettily, blue and green in the morning sun, as we arrived.

After a briefing by Paul Marangelo of the Nature Conservancy, our four canoes paddled out into the bay, began pulling up water chestnuts and stuffing them into waterproof bags. As the bags were filled – some piled well above the canoe gunwales – we returned to the muddy landing, and unloaded them.

A bonus during the morning was the presence of several osprey, who soared above the bay, sporting with one another, apparently enjoying the day as much as we were. We sat around at noon, muddy and spotted with green flecks of duckweed, eating our sandwiches, sharing fruit and chocolate. Then it was back in the canoes for more bagloads of plants.

By the end of the day, we had harvested more than four thousand pounds of water chestnuts! And we were a bit tired and muddy as well. We posed for photos standing atop the pile we had harvested, which was about the size of a small car.

As we pulled away from Whitney Creek, I looked back at the little bay. To be honest, it looked about as it had looked when we arrived that morning – a nondescript marshy inlet dotted with the white blossoms of water lilies, sparkling blue and green.

But I was quite happy about the day, and I suspect others were also. It felt good to give something back to the ecosystem we live in and take so much from – our lives, really. Perhaps the fish, the water lillies, the frogs in the bay and the osprey, circling overhead will all have a brighter future because of our efforts.

And perhaps not. But it was still was satisfying to donate some work and some time to the health of our planet, our only home.

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