Jeanne Sager | Democrat
THE UNDERSIDE OF the water chestnut rosette shows how easily the plant spreads out to overtake a lake.
Taste of Water Chestnuts Is Bitter
By Jeanne Sager
SWAN LAKE September 7, 2007 Could a sweet staple of Chinese cuisine be the death of Swan Lake?
The crisp white veggie is a key ingredient in dim sum and moo goo gai pan, but its cousin is leaving a bad taste in the mouths of Swan Lake residents.
Called a “plant invader” by the National Park Service (and illegal in a number of states nationwide), the water chestnut is literally choking the life out of the Sullivan County waterway.
An annual that grows in water, the “trapa natans” as it’s known in the scientific community, is characterized by leaves floating in a rosette pattern, often with a white flower at the center.
The “nut” of the plant is covered in sharp horns and pointy barbs detrimental to swimmers but hardy enough to live through a frost, dropping to the lake bed to reseed for up to 12 years.
And reseed it does.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has tracked the water chestnut to Collins Park in Scotia where it was introduced as an ornamental plant in the late 1800s.
Floods carried it to the Mohawk and Hudson river valleys and, coupled with the chestnuts brought into Massachusetts, were able to cover the Northeast by the mid-1900s.
As early as the 1940s, the Army Corps of Engineers was carrying out water chestnut removal projects in New York State, but limited funding in the 1990s kept agencies from attacking the plants in the water.
According to the Invasive Plant Council of New York, which has dubbed the water chestnut a “target plant,” each water chestnut seed can produce up to 15 to 20 new rosettes, and each rosette can generate up to 20 seeds (up to 300 seeds per year from one chestnut).
The connected rosettes quickly spread across any body of water, making it difficult to navigate with a boat and competing with native plants for oxygen.
Not edible by wildlife on Swan Lake, the chestnut has grown like wildfire in the past two years.
The hamlet’s residents have had enough.
“I’m afraid it will take over,” said Tommy LaGattuta, a long-time resident and local contractor.
LaGattuta will be leading a group of volunteers into the lake this weekend to harvest the chestnut by hand, providing the dump truck to take it away for proper composting.
“These things can really destroy a body of water in a short time,” he said. “In two seasons, they’ve probably taken over 35 percent of the lake.”
Swan Lake has made a perfect home for the water chestnut because it’s a shallow body of water with a murky bottom, the sort of environment where the trapa natans thrives.
Unfortunately, no one knows where it came from.
Lake owner Tony Murolo of AJM Associates said he’s been hearing about it from Swan Lake residents.
But the developer doesn’t live here he hasn’t been able to keep track of the water chestnut’s path.
He’s begun looking into it, he said, but so far come up with nothing.
The DEC frowns on chemical means to kill the plant, and Murolo said he doesn’t want to tangle with the state.
He’s granted his blessing to LaGattuta’s plan for hand harvesting until something else can be done holding out, he said, for some sort of funding to cover a costly machine removal.
Town of Liberty Supervisor Frank DeMayo said the town will lend any help it can to the project as well but the lake is privately owned which means the town can’t supply funding and the DEC grants for eradicating evasive species likely won’t apply.
That leaves people like LaGattuta residents who care.
He hopes to get a band of people out on the lake this weekend, anyone with a boat, canoe or hip waders who wants to help.
“All the research I’ve done shows the best way to remove it is actually by hand,” LaGattuta noted. “People need to come with a boat if they have it big boat, small boat, if it’ll launch on the lake and really, their hands.
“It’s an actual physical thing that has to be done,” he continued.
Simply reaching into the lake to grab a chestnut from the edge proves they pull out rather easily albeit in large clumps of connected plants.
Residents of Swan Lake proper aren’t the only ones who should be concerned.
The lake is considered a series of lakes or coves the two upper lakes are almost completely covered, LaGattuta said.
And even in spots not bogged down with chestnuts, there’s been a change in the usual flora and fauna of the area.
“It throws off the whole ecology of the lake,” LaGattuta explained.
His family came to Swan Lake in the 1970s, and they’ve fished and boated on the lake for some 30 years.
“It’s part of our natural landscape,” he said. “I’d hate to see it destroyed.
“It’s not a matter of trying to control nature,” LaGattuta continued. “This is something that’s going to get worse, it’s not natural and there’s no natural predator for it.”
He’s putting his time up as a volunteer and hoping others will follow for the sake of the whole town.
“If I can salvage the lake and keep it what it was…,” he said, trailing off. “It’s my home. I live there, my brothers live there… we want to keep the lake what it’s been for the past 30 years.”
This weekend’s harvesting will be a trail run.
Optimum harvesting time is early summer before the chestnuts go to seed but this attempt should be better than nothing.
It will also give the core volunteers a chance to drum up interest for the next go-round, attracting landowners with lake-front properties and other folks who have traditionally used the lake to lend a hand.
Volunteers will meet at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday at the Lakeside Park to talk about the day’s work then climb in their boats and get to it.
They’ll do the same on Sunday morning.
The chestnuts are thorny, so volunteers should bring gloves.