Thursday, January 31, 2019

Dispatch from La Isla del Encanto

My partner and I recently returned from a trip to Puerto Rico, the island we hope to soon call home. My sister joined us, too, and she and I spent several days exploring El Yunque, Puerto Rico’s lush rainforest that is full of endemic species of birds and insects. We enjoyed hiking in the forest and taking in the waterfalls, epiphytes, birds, and magnificent views of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance.

While talking to inhabitants of the island, whether it was waiting in line for Hamilton tickets or visiting with the manager of our Air BnB, the main message was always this: the island before Maria and after Maria. Life before and after the hurricane.



These words were constant whispers as we made our way around the island.

Also, Hamilton, but that’s because Lin-Manuel Miranda (local hero of Puerto Rican descent) was in town to play the lead in his hit musical for an exclusive and limited run.

One thing that my sister kept pointing out was the kudzu. As a resident of Georgia and fellow plant lover, she knows this vines well—and counts it as her enemy. On a personal note, I’ve enjoyed watching my sister’s growth into a knowledgeable gardener and advocate of native plants.

For those of you who have never heard of kudzu, it’s a vine native to Asia that is considered a noxious, invasive weed in many parts of the world, including the U.S., where it was introduced in the 1930’s as a method of soil erosion. Since then, it has spread at the rate of 150,000 acres annually.

The reason why it’s so dangerous is because the vine climbs healthy trees and smothers them to the point where they cannot receive sunlight, causing native and healthy trees to die.

When I think of an apocalyptic vision of the planet, it is a world blanketed in kudzu.

As avid plant people, my sister and I were dismayed to find it all over the island, including in the supposedly pristine national forest. Speaking with the permaculturist who ran our AirBnB, we learned that kudzu is another unfortunate consequence of the hurricane. Before the hurricane, no kudzu. After the hurricane, kudzu everywhere.

After being hit by two hurricanes back to back, many of the parks hiking paths were closed to visitors, as well as its main visitor center, El Portal. I can imagine that park staff has a lot of work on their hands, and destroying the invasive kudzu vine might not be high on their list. But as I see huge stretches of rainforest disappear the green blanket, the species beneath it without a chance at life, I wonder how far it will spread unchecked.

This may look like a beautiful sunset, but all I could see was the kudzu vine creeping up the tree fern!
My sister told me stories about her neighborhood in Georgia, where she’s become something of a kudzu police. More like a friendly invasive plant educator. She takes any opportunity she gets to tell her neighbors about why they shouldn’t allow this vine free reign in their yards. Most people don’t know its awful repercussions, and some even find its lushness alluring. In fact, kudzu is still sold at many Home Depots around the country!

It’s not all bad. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is considered one of the 50 fundamental herbs. In some countries, the roots and flowers are used in cooking. It’s not a bad plant—it’s just that in places where it is naturalized and not native, it can destroy the ecosystem. A weed is by definition a plant you don’t wish to have growing where it is growing. In another circumstance, a weed might be a food source or a medicine.

I encourage you all to research a bit about what plants around you might be native or not. It’s another way to be an engaged citizen of the world we live in. I recently put in a butterfly garden full of native plants and the flowers are always buzzing with bees and mariposas! (For those of you wanting a monarch update—they’re fine! I ran out to my friend’s house and cut a couple pieces of milkweed off of her plant to satisfy the hungry beasts!)

Not monarchs but still special

And while we’re on the subject of kudzu, I might as well post the link to a short story, “Gringa,” that I had published in Kudzu House literary magazine.

I hope you've all enjoyed a lovely (and hopefully not too freezing) month of January!