Plant Busters

With aliens invading, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership rolls out a plant eradication truck (not a food truck)

With aliens invading, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership rolls out a plant eradication truck (not a food truck)

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The Buffalo Bayou Invasive Plant Eradication Unit mingles a science lab feel with the look of a food truck. Photo by Joel Luks
News_Invasive Plant Eradication Unit
Artist Mark Dion Photo by Joel Luks
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The interior is equipped with a working table, aluminum storage closets and containers... Photo by Joel Luks
News_Invasive Plant Eradication Unit
...hands-on tools like shovels, nets, buckets... Photo by Joel Luks
News_Invasive Plant Eradication Unit
...and scientific tools like microscopes and plant presses. Photo by Joel Luks
News_Invasive Plant Eradication Unit
Photo by Joel Luks
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Courtesy of Invasive Plant Eradication Unit
News_Invasive Plant Eradication Unit_logo
Courtesy of Invasive Plant Eradication Unit
News_Invasive Plant Eradication Unit_logo
Courtesy of Invasive Plant Eradication Unit
News_Invasive Plant Eradication Unit
News_Invasive Plant Eradication Unit
News_Invasive Plant Eradication Unit
News_Invasive Plant Eradication Unit
News_Invasive Plant Eradication Unit
News_Invasive Plant Eradication Unit
News_Invasive Plant Eradication Unit_truck
News_Invasive Plant Eradication Unit_logo
News_Invasive Plant Eradication Unit_logo

There is a different type of occupation happening right here in the Bayou City that has little to do with concerns about the nation's democratic process, corporate greed and the so called "99 percent."

While those who have had enough and can't take it anymore are busy squatting until something happens, there's an ongoing tumult within the flora world that's causing quite a stir in some circles. 

This is no jazz-hands, foot-tapping, finger-snapping Little Shop of Horrors conundrum. It's about alien plants like Chinese Mulberry, Chinese Tallow, Elephant Ear and Alligator Weeds invading and eradicating native species like the Bald Cypress, Red Maple, American Beautyberry and the Virginia Iris.

 The invasive alien plants are spreading and changing the entire ecology from Houston to Galveston. 

In all seriousness — leaving human-eating musical plants aside — alien plants are a huge problem along the banks of the Buffalo Bayou, Houston's main urban waterway responsible for giving the city its economic roots. The 53-mile system begins in Katy, travels through the Houston Ship Channel, Galveston Bay and ends in the Gulf of Mexico. Allen's Landing, found at the junction of White Oak and Buffalo Bayou, marks the spot where the city's first port was established.

For the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, a conservation nonprofit concerned with this valuable natural resource, it's an issue related to maintaining the bayou's inherent biodiversity. Plants introduced in nearby landscaping projects, because of their physical appearance, made their way into the wild urban domain. They are spreading and changing the entire ecology from Houston to Galveston.

According to Massachusetts-born, New York-based artist Mark Dion, whose work comments on archeology, biology, ethnography, detection and the history of scientific methodology, much of the terrain should be marshland rather than forests, as it is today.

Mark Dion was challenged by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, in collaboration with Houston Arts Alliance, to create a functional work of art that would address these environmental concerns. His answer to the commission is the Buffalo Bayou Invasive Plant Eradication Unit, set to unveil at a launch party set for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Sabine Promenade. 

On Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., the unit will make an appearance at the Plant and Bulb Mart at the Holly Hall Retirement Community (2000 Holly Hall St.) and on Saturday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., it will stop by the Native Plant Symposium happening at the Omni Hotel (13210 Katy Freeway).  

The Buffalo Bayou Invasive Plant Eradication Unit, a native plant ambulance, per se, is Dion's first work in Houston.

It's a Ford vehicle designed to serve both as a conversation catalyst and educational tool as well as engage volunteers in the physical act of removing the aggressors.  It has a scientific, laboratory feel. A clean sleek white exterior with botanical illustrations of the offenders and the victims, designed by Glassell School of Art Core artist Gabriel Martinez, adorn its walls. It could have been whimsically colorful or don army/camo patterns.

For Dion, that would have been too kitschy.

"It has a playful dialog with the vernacular of food trucks and ice cream trucks and we wanted it to have a curious yet comical feel," the artist explains. "We opted for a clean and scientific feel, though the black and white skull in the logo nods to the harshness and directness of our approach. I didn't want to sugarcoat the function of the work."

The unit was retrofitted with a working table, aluminum storage containers, closets and supplied with tools like rubber boots, hard hats, nets, paddles and a boat. Scientific instruments such as plant presses, sampling test tubes, microscopes and related devices that would allow volunteers to investigate field findings are also included. 

In addition, shelves are lined with books, resource materials and field guides.

But is it art?

"To me, that's not a critical issue," Dion says. "That's not a battle for my generation and not a question of whether Duchamp belongs in the Museum of Modern Art. The question is whether it is fruitful, whether people will find it interesting, engaging. The word art can often stop lookers from finding something meaningful because of how prodigious art can be. My job is to make my works a challenging and engaging experience.

 "We opted for a clean and scientific feel, though the black and white skull in the logo nods to the harshness and directness of our approach," Dion says. "I didn't want to sugarcoat the function of the work." 

"Science is a better ally to art when art is a better ally to science."

It's fitting that the Buffalo Bayou is not an arts organization. For Dion, the work is meant to be used. It would be very disappointing if it were treated as if it were a cultural artifact, sculpture of aesthetic piece.

Calling it plant genocide may be a huge exaggeration — no human rights were violated in the invasive plant's somewhat hostile take over on the Bayou. But in some ways, it raises some Darwinian questions about living species' survival of the fittest and human's role in keeping what was native or allowing nature to play its course.

"In a natural system, this change would happen over 10,000 years," Dion says. "We are talking about large environmental destruction caused by clearing of land, industrial development and the introduction of exotic plants from Europe, North Africa and Central China that are more adaptive to these conditions. Here, they don't have the natural predators that would control their population growth. They are living in an idealized version of their own environments.

"Native plants have a specific and narrow, niche purpose and without intervention, we are looking at biological monoculture."

The type of productive diversity the unit promotes leads to preservation beyond the botanical world of plants. It influences insects, birds and mammals. It's not necessarily about turning back the clock and restoring the bayou to its pristine, idealistic utopian notion. That will never happen. Dion's goal is to educate and make sure this biodiversity exists in the future.

"There's no way to get rid off these species completely," he says. "It would be akin to putting the Genie back in the bottle."

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