Alien Invaders – I

We have heard of (and known) the Congress.  All of us know about grass or weed, though not much of the type you smoke.  Combine the two and you have a deadly, alien invader called Congress Grass.  Also known as ‘White top’ like the ubiquitous Congress-wallas in Gandhi topis.  It is equally lethal, much like the raucous political outfit from which it gets its popular name.

While we have streets and roads named after dead Rulers in cities and towns, many of the rural roads in sub-tropical Himachal (and elsewhere) could actually be called Congress Grass highways. It is not just the highways but the link roads, old village paths, bridle paths, forest fringes, stream and river banks,  along foot paths, dug up plots in urban areas or any generally disturbed land has been taken over by this alien invader. It is an aggressive colonizer especially of disturbed sites.

The bad news is that Congress Grass is spreading faster than we can figure out.  According to one report, by the end of the 20th Century, Congress Grass had spread to over 350 lakh hectares of the country or about 10% of our total land area. This translates a cumulative loss of over 1.7 lakh crore rupees!

Botanically known as Parthenium, the genra has 15 species with a few sub-species and varieties worldwide. Parthenium reportedly slipped into India in the mid-Fifties along with wheat from the American tropics where this weed is native. After that Congress Grass has far outstripped our population growth and today can be found all over the country and everywhere.  Several countries in South East Asia and Africa have been invaded and large tracts occupied in Australia too.

Congress Grass is a prolific breeder with each plant producing thousands of seeds.  These seeds, most of which germinate, get carried around mixed with grass or crop seeds by vehicles or water.

Parthenium in a Tiger Reserve
Parthenium in a Tiger Reserve

Ironically Parthenium is a medicinal plant and has been used for various ailments by indigenous people in Central America.  However, in India it disrupts natural ecosystems invading pastures and impacting livestock, causing the ‘bitter milk’ disease in livestock fed with grass mixed with Parthenium leaves.  It is a major cause of plant-induced Airborne Contact Dematitis that has led to serious epidemics in rural India.  Parthenium has been referred to as “The Scourge of India”.

Its odour, which bees abhor could be a reason for the latter’s disappearance in much of rural Himachal? Will the CBI please take this case?

The WhiteTop Weed - Parthenium hysterophorus
The WhiteTop Weed – Parthenium hysterophorus

Unlike Aliens from outer space, these grassy invaders do not intend to violently wipe out mankind or subjugate the world, but manage to annihilate whatever is native everywhere.  Being plants they begin with other plants and much like but more ruthlessly than erstwhile colonialists, stifle native flora out of existence.

The previous government in Himachal, in its eagerness to announce ‘new’ schemes seized an opportunity to launch a ‘Congress Ghass Hatao’ scheme, much to the discomfiture of the Opposition. But Congress Grass is not the only alien invader in their genre, and several more are busy too with their own insidious invasions, relentlessly pursuing spatial conquest.

It has been said that the humble grasses have changed more of the history of the world than all human endeavour put together. Could this be the Second Coming?

Zygogramma bicolorata (Mexican Joe) "Having gorged on Congress Grass, this pair is up to the next best thing
Zygogramma bicolorata (Mexican Joe)
“Having gorged on Congress Grass, this pair is up to the next best thing

Zygogramma bicolorata, the beetle that defoliates Congress Grass like its host, is also from Mexico.  Incidentally most of the vegetables we eat the most are also from Mexico.  Tomato, Potato, Beans: Remember?

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