by Piter Kehoma Boll
We are moving out of the sea this week, but will still remain in the water to bring you a peculiar fern. Commonly known as giant salvinia, kariba weed or giant watermoss, its scientific name is Salvinia molesta and it comes from southeastern Brazil.
The water salvinia is an aquatic fern that floats on the surface of the water and has a peculiar anatomy. It lacks roots, and it produces leaves in sets of three. Two of them remain at the surface of the water, side by side, and the third one is submerged, acting like a modified root. The upper side of the surface leaves (which are anatomically their underside) have many small hairs that turn them into a waterproof surface and the underside have very long hairs that look like roots.
Preferring slow-moving waters, the giant salvinia grows very quickly in ideal conditions and has become an invasive species in several parts of the world. It was exported from Brazil to be used in aquaria and garden ponds and ended up in natural environments. While spreading, the giant salvinia can cover the entire surface of water bodies, blocking light for other plants and algae, which decreases photosynthesis and reduces the amount of oxygen in the water. Additionally, it can clog waterways, blocking natural or artificial water flows.
The problem caused by the giant salvinia in areas where it has become invasive led to the development of control methods. One of the simplest methods is simply removing the plants mechanically, but it is difficult in areas with large infestations, as even small remaining populations may quickly recover. Another alternative is the use of biological control using Cyrtobagous salviniae, a tiny weevil that feeds on the giant salvinia in its natural environment.
Not everything about the giant salvinia is bad, actually. Its peculiar leaf anatomy led to the discovery of what was properly called “the salvinia effect”, a phenomen by which an air layer becomes stable over a submerged surface, as in the leaves of species of Salvinia. By developing artificial structures that make use of this phenomenon, it is possible to produce devices that move smoothly in water, such as ships with reduced friction.
A considerably recent study also found out that some compounds extracted from the giant salvinia are effective in the control of human tumor cells.
Our relationship with this peculiar plant is therefore one of love and hate.
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Coetzee, J. A.; Hill, M. P.; Byrne, M. J.; Bownes, A. (2011) A Review of the Biological Control Programmes on Eichhornia crassipes (C.Mart.) Solms (Pontederiaceae), Salvinia molesta D.S.Mitch. (Salviniaceae), Pistia stratiotes L. (Araceae), Myriophyllum aquaticum (Vell.) Verdc. (Haloragaceae) and Azolla filiculoides Lam. (Azollaceae) in South Africa. African Entomology 19: 451-468.
Li, S.; Wang, P.; Deng, G.; Yuan, W.; Su, Z. (2013) Cytotoxic compounds from invasive giant salvinia (Salvinia molesta) against human tumor cells. Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry Letters 23(24): 6682-6687.
Wikipedia. Salvinia molesta. Available at < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salvinia_molesta >. Access on February 21, 2018.
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