Bangkok, 25 October 2015

A few weeks ago now, my wife and I were greeted with this site when we came out for breakfast on our balcony overlooking the Chao Phraya River



Huge mats – small islands, almost – of water hyacinth were floating by, on their way to the Gulf of Thailand. So big were they that they were interfering with the water buses as they zig-zagged across the river from pier to pier. They had to slowly push their way through the mats, rather like ice-breakers, to reach the piers and let off their passengers. As the days went by the mats got smaller, and now there are only clumps moving to and fro with the tide, some with a white egret perched on them going along for the ride. A flotilla of yellow boats went by yesterday morning loaded up with baskets full of water hyacinth.


They must be part of some collection system. Given the amount of the stuff floating in the river, it seems a doomed effort, more a way for the government to give jobs to the boys than to really clear up the river’s water hyacinth problem.

When we first arrived here a year ago, these mats of water hyacinth floating by were one of the things which had struck us about the river. Then, over the months, they had disappeared. We had almost forgotten about them when those huge mats greeted us at breakfast that morning of a few weeks ago. I suppose the seasonal rains had filled canals and reservoirs upstream enough for someone to open dykes and dams to relieve the pressure and in the process clear out the water hyacinths which had been quietly growing there all year.

Water hyacinth has a beautiful flower

Water hyacinth flower

which is why someone (or someones) took it out of its original habitat, the Amazon basin, and carried it off to botanical and private gardens around the world. But from there, the plant somehow made it out into the big wide world and happily colonized waterways which had never known it and had no biological weapons to combat it. It grows very rapidly and soon was choking up waterways, beautifully of course, but still choking the life out of them.

water hyacinth in flower in canal

Water hyacinth is considered an invasive species, that is to say, a species which is not native to a specific location and which has a tendency to spread in that new location to such a degree that it causes damage to the environment, to human health, and/or to the economy. That certainly describes the water hyacinth. It invaded the waterways of Louisiana and Florida in the late 19th Century, choking them up. In Africa, it’s invaded many places. It’s invaded the Nile, all the way from Sudan to Egypt. It invaded Lake Victoria in the 1980s (it was brought to Rwanda by Belgian colonists, who wished to beautify their properties, and then escaped into River Kagera, which led it to the lake). This is Kisumu harbour on the lake.

Kisumu Harbour Lake Victoria

In India, it has invaded the Kerala backwaters.

Kerala Backwaters

In South-East Asia, apart from the Chao Phraya River and many, many other places, it has invaded Tonlé Sap Lake in Cambodia, a lake with a very unique ecology.

tonle sap

If you don’t control it, water hyacinth will cover lakes and ponds entirely, as these pictures show. This dramatically impacts water flow, it blocks sunlight from reaching native aquatic plants, and it starves the water of oxygen, often killing aquatic species. The mats are also create great places for mosquitos to live, as well as a species of snail known to host a parasitic flatworm which causes schistosomiasis.

I am reminded of a beautiful but evil woman: shall we say Julia Roberts as Snow Queen?

julia roberts evil queenOK, to be gender-neutral let me also suggest a handsome but evil man: shall we say Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen in Twilight?

Edward Cullen in Twilight

To be fair to water hyacinth, it is not the only invasive species by any manner of means. There must be hundreds if not thousands of species which are considered invasive in some corner of the globe. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has come up with a list of the 100 worst invasive species, confessing that it had great difficulty in squeezing the list down to a mere hundred (although water hyacinth did make it onto the list). Reading the list is eye-opening and depressing. Let me make a relatively random selection of a few of them. Kudzu, which has been receiving a lot of bad press as an invasive species, is on the list, and if this picture of a house smothered by kudzu is anything to go by, with good reason.


Originally from China, it was introduced to Japan, and from there to the US as an ornamental. Then during the 1930s farmers were paid to plant kudzu to combat soil erosion. Then it went crazy.

The brown tree snake, which has also received a lot of bad press as an invasive, is on the list too.

brown tree snake

Originally from northern Australia, New Guinea, and some of the nearby islands, it was accidentally introduced into the island of Guam in the late forties-early fifties, maybe by crawling into the landing gear of an aeroplane, maybe as a stowaway on a ship. Once on the island, it went crazy, decimating, and in some cases completely eliminating, certain species of birds and rodents. Since Guam is a big transport node, it’s highly possible that the snake will get carried to other islands in the Pacific.

The fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd as it is known, is also there.

Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis

This little bugger has been wiping out frog populations all over the world, down to extinction in some cases. Only discovered in 1998, it’s thought that Bd originated in Africa and subsequently spread to other parts of the world by trade in the African clawed frog. Another fungus on the list is Ophiostoma ulmi sensu lato, better known as the fungus that causes Dutch Elm Disease. Originally from Asia, it somehow got into Europe in the early 1900s, probably in a shipment of Asian elm, but it was a mild form and was contained. From the Netherlands, it got into the US in the 1920s, through New York, where it has slowly but surely been killing off the North American elms. A much more virulent strain came back into Europe from the US in the late 1960s, probably in some infected wood, and has been killing off European elms ever since. This view of Salisbury Cathedral, for instance, painted by John Constable in 1820, is no more; the magnificent elms to the left have all died.

john constable salisbury cathedral

Closer to home, did you know that the cat is an invasive species?


Well, it is in certain parts of the world like New Zealand or Australia, or even the US. European colonists brought them, they have gone feral – or they just hunt for the fun of it – and have decimated, if not obliterated, certain bird species, and continue to do so. It’s so bad that it has made in onto the list of the 100 worst.

Staying with the familiar, the goat – an aggressive “eating machine” – is on the list, as are the rabbit, the red deer, the fox, the starling, and the rainbow trout, all introduced into new habitats by European colonists to make the colonies more like home, and all causing damage to the new ecosystems they found themselves in .

Going small again, I pick a mollusk from the list, the cannibal snail.

cannibal snail

I pick it because it teaches us an important lesson in the fight against invasive species. The snail is an invasive in Hawaii, where it was originally introduced to try to eliminate another invasive species, the giant African land snail. Our friend is a fast and voracious predator, hunting and eating other snails and slugs, which gives it its pretty nickname. So the hope was that it would go after the giant African land snail. But instead, it went after the indigenous O’ahu tree snail species. And it went after them so enthusiastically that many of the species were extinct within a year. This is the risk with introducing a new predator to prey on an invasive species. There are chances that the predator will find other, indigenous, prey more yummy or simply easier to hunt, and you now find yourself with two invasives on your hands rather than one. Stoats, also on the list, fall into this category. Introduced into New Zealand to control the invasive rabbits and hares, it went after the indigenous birds instead, so now New Zealanders are left with trying to get rid of the stoat as well as the rabbit and hare.

For another plant on the list, the prickly pear, I refer the reader to an earlier post which I wrote about it. I’ll finish with a small tree, the cedar tree.

cedar tree

I add it simply because my French grandmother had one in her garden, and I loved climbing it when I was small. It was OK for her to have it, it is native to Europe and Asia. But when this tree, with its lovely pink flowers and feathery leaves, was introduced into the Southwestern US it was a disaster.

I invite readers to look at the list. It is quite sobering. In fact, as I study it, it occurs to me that there is one horribly invasive species that is not on it: homo sapiens sapiens.

human familyThis species left its original home in Africa 70,000 years ago and slowly spread all over the world. In at least three places, Australia, North America, and much later New Zealand, its arrival seems to have triggered a massive die-off of the bigger indigenous fauna, probably because they didn’t have sufficient defences against its clever hunting habits. About two hundred and fifty years ago, the species started the so-called scientific and industrial revolutions, which have resulted in it now having unprecedented power over all other species. It has, for its amusement or to make money or to protect one of its enslaved species (its agricultural crops and its livestock) from predatory attack or simply by mistake, moved species around the world, creating all the ecological catastrophes I’ve touched on above. And because it is taking living space away from all other species, crowding them out much more effectively than the kudzu pictured above is, it has set off the greatest die-off of species that the planet has seen in the last 66 million years.

I really think it should be on the list. I must write to the IUCN suggesting it.


Water hyacinth on the Chao Phraya River: my photos
Water hyacinth flower: (in
Water hyacinth in flower in canal: (in
Kisumu harbor, Lake Victoria: (in
Kerala backwaters: (in
Tonlé Sap: (in
Julia Roberts snow queen: (in daily mail; exact site is blocked by the Thai Ministry of Information)
Edward Cullen in Twilight: (in
Kudzu: (in
Brown tree snake: (in
Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis: (in
John Constable Salisbury Cathedral: (in
Cat: (in
Cannibal snail: (in
Cedar tree: (in
Human family: (in


Beijing, 3 August 2014

I’m very boring when it comes to using after-shaves, eaux de cologne, or similar perfumes. I use none. I don’t even like to use perfumed soaps. I prefer to smell of nothing. Very boring.

This dislike of perfumes extends to perfumes on others. For instance, I wince and move rapidly out of the way if I happen, on the street or in a corridor, to find myself walking into the scented wash following a heavily perfumed person. And I always stare disapprovingly at scented people if I find myself with them in elevators or other enclosed spaces from which I cannot escape.

As you can imagine, this scentophobia of mine, if I can call it that, is the despair of my wife. Whenever we are taking an international flight she always makes a bee-line for the perfumery section of the Duty Free shop, where she will try a spray of this and a squirt of that. She always asks me my opinion, and like any good husband I always take a sniff and murmur something unintelligible. She sighs and asks out loud why she bothers. Indeed, why does she bother? I suppose hope springs eternal.

But actually, once, just once, she tried a perfume, she asked me my opinion, I dutifully sniffed … and I blinked. I liked it! I actually liked it! It had a lemony-sort of scent which my nose really found quite attractive. Terribly pleased by this exciting development, my wife promptly purchased the perfume in question and has been using it ever since. Since my readers are no doubt on the edge of their seats by now, wondering what perfume it was, I am glad to announce that it was Chance Eau Fraîche, by Chanel.

Chanel Chance Eau FraicheI’m not sure that its use filled my wife with quite as much delirious happiness as this young lady is showing, but it did put a spring in her step and a twinkle in her eye. It also allowed me to close my eyes and go “mmm-aaah” whenever she gave herself a spray.

man smelling perfume-2

All was well until the perfume began to run out. A replacement became an impelling necessity. An inspection of shops in Beijing showed that prices were ridiculously high here, so I was given the task – gladly taken on, since I liked the perfume – of getting a new bottle on my upcoming trip to Europe. Which I did, in the Duty Free shop at Vienna airport. I triumphantly presented it to my wife upon my arrival. She ceremoniously opened the packaging, fished out the bottle, and gave herself a spray.

OMG, not the same! We sniffed, we conferred, we checked the packaging (I could have got the wrong product, it wouldn’t have been the first time), we compared it to the remaining dregs in the old bottle … No doubt about it, something was different. But what?

I went off in a frenzy of searching on the internet, starting with Chanel perfumes’ own website. Allow me to quote the blurb about Chance Eau Fraîche which I found there

A vibrant incarnation of the unexpected fragrance, now takes on a sparkling freshness. The unexpected floral bursts with a lightness and zest as notes of Citrus, Water Hyacinth and Jasmine Absolute are highlighted and energized with woody notes of Amber, Patchouli and Fresh Vetiver.

I must say, I thought I had reached the maximum levels of BS in descriptions of wines, which I commented on in an earlier post, but the BS written about perfumes beats them all. In any event, this description didn’t help me in figuring out what was wrong.

Another site, after breathlessly quoting the Chanel site blurb almost word for word, added this:

Top Notes: Citron, Water Hyacinth
Middle Notes: Jasmine Absolute, White Musk
Base Notes: Vetiver, Amber, Patchouli, Teak

What was this stuff about notes? A bit more research on my part taught me that there is such a thing as a fragrance pyramid, which looks like this:


This chart explains what all these notes mean (BTW, middle notes are also called heart notes, and top notes head notes), but it’s rather scholastic, the sort of thing a teacher would put on the board at school. Here’s a more colourful version of the same pyramid

olfactive pyramid-2Coming back to our problem with Chance Eau Fraîche, something must have happened to the top notes, because we smell the difference immediately. My wife thinks the Chanel people have cut back on the citron note. I think it’s something else – have they fiddled with the water hyacinth note? I wouldn’t be able to say because I have no idea what water hyacinth smells like. The closest I’ve come to the plant is clumps of it floating past the window on the Chao Phraya River last week in Bangkok.

water hyacinths 001

In fact, I only know it as a horribly invasive species, which has more or less choked Lake Victoria in Africa to death. But it has a beautiful flower

Water Hyacinth Flowerwhich, it seems, was the reason it was taken away from its original homeland in South America and spread the world over.

But now that I’ve learned this stuff about notes, I shall have to sneak up on my wife some 10-15 minutes after she has applied the perfume and see if I can smell the middle notes, jasmine absolute and white musk – which are what, exactly?

Well jasmine I know, and I know that my wife loves it. But there are a bewildering number of jasmine species, several of which are used for fragrances, so completely randomly I’ve chosen a picture of the flower from jasminum multiflorum to represent the species.

jasmineAs for this word “absolute”, I have learned that some flowers, jasmine being one of them, are too delicate to have their oils extracted through distillation. Instead, they are extracted with solvents or through enfleurage, a process where the petals are pressed or stirred into fats.

I think I would recognize jasmine if I smell it on my wife, but I’ve no idea what white musk would smell like. I have this idea that it would be very penetrating as a smell – “animalic”, as they put it in that second fragrance pyramid I give above. Come to think of it, I don’t even really know what musk is, or at least I didn’t until I read up for this post. Now I know a bit more. For starters, white musk is the name given to synthetic musk. For economic, and I would hope ethical, reasons, musk is no longer taken from its natural source, which is a gland of the male musk deer (I had vaguely thought it came from civet cats, don’t know why).

musk deer

Nice looking creatures, although what strange fangs they have! The famous musk gland lies in a sac located between the poor animal’s genitals and its navel. Presumably, you had to kill the animal to get to this gland.

So that does the middle notes. After three-four hours, I can sneak up on my wife again and try to detect the base notes. And here again, I have to confess to much ignorance. I know what amber and teak are, although I have difficulties in understanding what essential oils could be extracted from them, but what, I asked myself, are vetiver and patchouli?

They are both plants, it turns out, which come from India or thereabouts. Vetiver is a grass, related to sorghum.

vetiverThe essential oil used in perfumes comes from its roots.

vetiver roots

The oil is described as smelling “warm and dry, and conveying earthy, woody, leather, balsamic and smoky notes”. I’m not sure how exactly that would register in my nose; I guess I will see.

As for patchouli, it is a bushy herb of the mint family with small, pale purple flowers.

patchouli plantIf you thought like I did that the essential oil comes from the flowers, you would be wrong. It comes from a distillation of the plant’s leaves. It seems that it has a heavy and strong scent, so I guess I will recognize it when I take that surreptitious sniff at my wife’s neck.

As for amber, I quickly understood that we were not talking about real amber. Instead, the word is used to loosely describe a fragrance that is “warm, musky, rich and honey-like”, and also “somewhat oriental and earthy”. Like everything nowadays, it can be made completely synthetically. But I prefer to believe that the master perfumer who created Chance Eau Fraîche, Jacques Polge, used natural resins. In that case, the basis of the “amber” in my wife’s perfume will probably be labdanum, which comes from a species of rockrose found in the Mediterranean. The shrub has a lovely flower


but actually what is used in perfumes is the plant’s resin, which is usually extracted by boiling the leaves and twigs. To this can be added benzoin resin (obtained from the bark of several species of trees in the genus Styrax), copal (another type of tree resin), Dammara resin (from the kauri or dammar trees), vanilla, cloves and who knows what else. Labdanum’s fragrance is described as “animalic, sweet, woody, ambergris, dry musk, or leathery” and “very rich, complex and tenacious”. OK, let’s see what my nose tells me.

And teak? I guess that will be a woody smell …

Right, it’s time to go sniffing around my wife.


Chanel Chance Eau Fraiche: [in
Man smelling perfume: [in
Fragrance Pyramid: [in
Fragrance pyramid-2: [in
Water hyacinth on the Chao Phraya River: my photo
Water hyacinth flower: [in
Jasmine flower: [in
Musk deer: [in
Vetiver: [in
Vetiver roots: growth2.JPG [in
Patchouli: [in
Labdanum flower: [in