Hyunsuh Kim

Re-cognizing Japanese Knotweed

Proposal to Proclaim Japanese Knotweed as the National Flower of the Netherlands

I search “Japanese Knotweed” on Google and the first article that pops up reads “Japanese Knotweed: How to control and remove it”. The Netherlands has been battling this beautiful and flourishing plant for a while, paying up to millions of euros per year to eradicate it (Ng)— why? Why not instead embrace its presence and celebrate it as the plant that can represent the botanical sphere of the Netherlands? We reevaluate the role of the Japanese knotweed in the cultural and ecological landscapes of the Netherlands in proposing it as the ideal candidate for the Dutch floral emblem.

 

Introduction

A national flower, or floral emblem, is a vegetal symbol that reflects the national identity and is established by the Constitution. Many nations select their floral emblems upon standards such as the extent to which the plant embodies the cultural imaginations and encompasses the lives of the people in everyday occasions. Quite frequently, ulterior motives such as sponsorship from agricultural sectors also intervene in the selection of the national flower (Dobransky & Fine), but it is arguable that such selection is not necessarily the most constructive in providing a botanical vocabulary for individuals to converse about the shared cultural and historical landscapes of the country. The author of this proposal argues that the symbolic potency and the affective power that the flower elicits, through its historical background and cultural associations, ought to be considered first and foremost, and exploited to the fullest in the selection of the floral emblem. Following this reason, although tulips (Tulipa) have largely been promoted as the unofficial national flower of the Netherlands, the author believes that 1) the Japanese Knotweed (Reynoutria japonica; also referred to as Fallopia japonica or Polygonum cuspidatum) is a more pertinent candidate to represent the Netherlands, for several reasons pertaining to the tulips and the knotweed respectively, and that 2) the Netherlands should declare it formally as the official national flower, in recognizing that the nation’s identity has been, and continues to be framed as a pioneer and explorer since colonial past at the expense of the environment and the people of the former colonies, and as part of the effort to remedy the damage that it has done. The Japanese Knotweed has gained controversial reputation across different cultural contexts. For this reason, should the Netherlands select it as its floral emblem, it will be a significant symbolic gesture of adopting a repentant yet hopeful attitude, which will empower the Netherlands to become a servant leader in the globalizing world: cautious and self-aware of the risk of potentially impeding the rights and cultures of others in the process of securing one's national identity. 

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Japanese Knotweed sprouting - A young sprout of knotweed in the peeping up in the grass in March. This plant is originally from Asia and is considered an exotic invader in the west. As such it is seen as a plague that is dangerous and damaging to local ecology and infrastructure. Reynoutria japonica or Fallopia japonica or Polygonum cuspidatum are the scientific names of the species. Japanse Duizenknoop is the dutch name. photo 2020 by Willem Velthoven  for Mediamatic Willem Velthoven

 

Methods

The research method for this study combines the description of the botanical characteristics of the Japanese knotweed, the study of its geographical distribution in the Netherlands and Europe within historical context, and the examination of the cultural associations and everyday interactions that the species fosters in different communities and environmental niches. 

This work will be presented in other art, cultural and educational institutions in the Netherlands, as well as the social media platforms of Mediamatic, to collect signatures of the public in agreement with that the Japanese knotweed is a befitting candidate for the official national flower of the Netherlands.

Once the number of signatures required for the adhesion has been reached, this proposal will be submitted to the Dutch Parliament for the official proclamation of the Japanese knotweed as the Netherlands' national flower. 

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Table of adhesions in favor of proclamation of Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) as the national flower of the Netherlands -

 

Results and Discussion

First of all, it is relevant to mention that the Netherlands does not have an official national flower, although tulip has become a large cultural icon throughout centuries. This proposal thus raises the argument for 1) why the Netherlands should proclaim a national flower officially, and 2) why this national flower should not be the tulips. An official selection of a floral emblem as recognized by the government of a nation enables for a clearer communication of the the threefold self that Tory Higgins discusses: the perceived self, the ideal self and the ought self. Furthermore, once the floral emblem is selected, its geographical ubiquity serves as a reminder for the citizens of the country to identify themselves with the message of the collective identity that their government promotes. The current phenomena of political polarization and social segregation in the Netherlands, increasing cultural fragmentation of what may describe as an identity crisis of the nation as a whole that instigates hostilities both internally and externally, can be argued as reflecting the dissension between different perceived, ideal, and ought selves that individuals and communities hold, and a compensated ability to communicate them to one another.

Comparison of Narratives Surrounding Tulip and Japanese Knotweed in relation to the Netherlands

Deciding upon a national flower then becomes less to unite such differences under one conglomerate and unidimensional identity, but more to plant a conversation starter in acknowledging and actively responding to the plurality of opinions with regards to the complex cultural and historical background of the Netherlands. For this same reason, a tulip is insufficient in fully embodying the ambiguity of meanings and multifold identity that is necessary for the national flower of the Netherlands. The tulip may accurately represent the perceived self of the Netherlands— its cultural history reflects the Dutch fascination towards the exotic, an enthusiasm and fervor with which the Dutch appropriate and further cultivate foreign influences (and later abandon when the object is no longer desired, such as when the Dutch recovered from the tulip fever and started referring to the flower as a “pagan goddess of whores” and "Turkish flower" sold by “Jews and Mennonites”) (Dash), the unique and seemingly paradoxical combination of cultural norms to save and to gamble, and with it a sense of ocularcentric vanity that accompanies the Dutch liking of a showy display to others (the tulip does not have a strong scent, let alone strong enough to form a prominent part of Dutch olfactory memory, yet the Dutch government selected it as the smell of the Netherlands for World Sensorium) (Nalls), and how the flower then ironically became the most practical resource for the Netherlands survive the hongerwinter. However, with all these cultural associations withstanding, recognition of the tulip as the national flower of the Netherlands would be a reenactment of the same logic of appropriation, selecting solely the flower’s desired qualities to then display to other nations as though the flower is uniquely one’s own, and in its process failing to acknowledge the ongoing racist and sexist sentiments that once tainted this flower. Even if such history was explicitly communicated, proclaiming the tulip as the floral emblem would be at best an acknowledgement and not a reflection of a will to actively amend for such history and change for the better. The tulip fails to communicate the ideal and ought selves of the Netherlands (and if the intent is actually to communicate them using the tulip, that would be even more problematic). On the other hand, this proposal argues that the Japanese knotweed, with its ambiguous relationship with the Netherlands, and with the rest of the global ecosystem that can be seen as both positive and negative, is an apt candidate for conveying all of the past, present and future —the ideal and ought selves— of this country.

Botanical Characteristics of Japanese Knotweed

The author argues several reasons to how the Japanese knotweed both reflects the past of the Netherlands and sets an agenda for its future.

  • The Japanese knotweed is well-known for its resilience and adaptability in a wide range of environments, from volcanic deserts to the sidewalk. Such persistence and potential as a pioneer species reflects the Dutch pride in founding and maintaining a nation of their own despite natural, political, religious and sociocultural adversities. (read more)

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Japanese knotweed growing on the road - Fallopia japonica , symbol of resilience and hope. Source: CABI Invasive Species Compendium. https://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/23875#toPictures

  • However, the aforementioned Dutch narrative of militarizing and antagonizing the interaction between human and nature (i.e. "battle against water") can be problematic in the current Anthropocene context where the boundary between the two is actively blurred. The Japanese knotweed is also often described as a natural force that one ought to defeat, a "pest", yet contrary to popular belief the plant has little impact on buildings and pipelines. Its everyday interaction with artificial infrastructure instead evokes a tension that has the potential to deconstruct the conveniently-held dichotomy between nature and culture. (read more

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Japanese Knotweed - Fallopia japonica  Author:  Migas

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Japanese knotweed covering a train - It is time that the Dutch move on from merely “tolerating”, to “embracing” and “welcoming”, just like this blanket of Japanese knotweed that surrounds this old train in Beekbergen, Netherlands. Source: Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reynoutria_japonica#/media/File:Fallopia_overgrows_train.jpg

  • On the other hand, to argue that the Japanese knotweed is not an invasive species because it does not demolish buildings, dismisses much of its complex relationships with its surroundings. While Japanese knotweed can be a pioneer species that convert dry, infertile areas into an environment that other species can also flourish, it can also outcompete existing species when introduced to a new environment, and as a consequence reduce biodiversity and incite soil erosion and floods (read more about the varying impacts of Japanese knotweed in different habitats). The Netherlands, being a botany-enthusiast with an elaborate canal system, unknowingly have had, and continue to have significant contribution in distributing the plant as an invasive species throughout Europe. In fact, most of the Japanese knotweed plants in Europe are clones of the single octaploid mutant plant (more proliferative than the tetraploids in Japan) that was brought from Japan. (read more about how Japanese knotweed entered Europe, and the story of Philip Franz von Siebold, a German botanist in Leiden)
  • To then name this plant as one’s emblem is to recognize this relationship of how the Dutch have triggered and assisted the plant's invasion in Europe, to transform the animosity targeted towards the plant as a humble recognition of its presence in relation to the Dutch, a reminder of the need to act in accordance to all of past, present and future to oneself as both a pioneer and invader.
  • Often, once a flower is selected a national symbol, much financial investment goes into making the symbol more accessible and popular, such as by planting more of them. Conveniently, Japanese knotweed is already a geographical and cultural ubiquity in the Netherlands. Every spring new shoots rise to the surface, as a reminder of all that the Dutch are not particularly eager in confronting, regardless of how they were eradicated the previous year. Furthermore, this proposal recommends a novel approach to appreciating the plant as a national symbol, compared to how most national floral symbols are consumed around the world: to increase its accessibility primarily by promoting and educating the public about the edibility and medicinal properties of the plant.

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Map of Japanese Knotweed in Amsterdam - Source: Gemeente Amsterdam

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Global distribution of Japanese knotweed - Source: Siebold, Z. “Polygonum cuspidatum”. Discover Life. https://www.discoverlife.org/mp/20q?search=polygonum+cuspidatum&burl=abtadvisors.net/__media__/js/netsoltrademark.php?d=adult-bay.info/category/punjabi-jija-and-saali-1.html&flags=col1:&res=640

Consuming the Japanese Knotweed as a National Symbol

National flowers are usually part of bouquets, indoor ornaments, brooches, wreaths, songs and poems but not the diet of the people, despite the fact that so long as the plant is edible, eating is the most intimate form of interaction with the plant. Moreover, the commonly held assumption for the agenda following an official proclamation of a floral emblem is that farmers and gardeners alike are encouraged to grow the plant and thus increase the population of the species. However, this need not be the case, particularly for the Netherlands, whose urgent need to transform the national identity from one which expands, increases, and colonizes to one which shrinks, diminishes and decolonizes, is more felt than ever. According to Arne Hendriks, artist of The Incredible Shrinking Man, a series of thought experiments, research and performance artworks surrounding the theme of downsizing humans, ‘growth’ need not be defined by quantitative increase, but instead, maturation; ‘progress’ need not rely on a linear momentum, but instead a cyclical return. Invasivorism, the practice of eating invasive plants is a diet and a movement to re-cognize the potential of invasive species and partake in establishing a harmonious relationship with them (“Invasive Species”). Japanese knotweed is not only edible but is also rich in vitamins and has medicinal properties— its Japanese name, itadori, means to “take away pain”, as it is useful for particularly stress and infection-related illnesses such as ulcers (“Fallopia japonica”). Proclaiming the Japanese knotweed as the national flower of the Netherlands can help foster a new kind of appreciation for the plant in Dutch people, in helping them recognize the ways that it can nourish and heal them.

 

Conclusion

In Dutch, the Japanese knotweed is called duizendknoop: literally, “a thousand knots”. Just as the plant itself, this name can be perceived in numerous ways— on the one hand, it refers to the old but still present problems that the Netherlands need to confront and seek resolutions for, on the other hand, the connections and ties made between different agents, the old and new, tradition and modern, past, present and future. This proposal urges that the Netherlands recognize its past, remedy for their damage and be on the forefront among developed countries in reevaluating the meaning of nationalization, development and progress. Referring back to the name itadori, it is the author’s hope for Japanese knotweed to become the impetus for a nation-wide process of healing itself and others.

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Japanese Knotweed sprouting in the morning sun - A young sprout of knotweed in the peeping up in the grass in March. This plant is originally from Asia and is considered an exotic invader in the west. As such it is seen as a plague that is dangerous and damaging to local ecology and infrastructure. Reynoutria japonica or Fallopia japonica or Polygonum cuspidatum are the scientific names of the species. Japanse Duizenknoop is the dutch name. photo 2020 by Willem Velthoven  for Mediamatic Willem Velthoven

 

 

Acknowledgement

The author would like to express sincere gratitude to all researchers, artists, chefs, foragers and activists who have provided substantial support for this proposal, and those who will add even further by signing the amendment, and last but not least, the Japanese knotweed and all botanical agents that continue to nourish and inspire life on earth.

 

References

Dash, Mike. Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower and the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused.Three Rivers Press, 1999.

Dobransky, Kerry, and Gary Alan Fine. "The Native in the Garden: Floral Politics and Cultural Entrepreneurs."Sociological Forum21, no. 4 (2006): 559-85. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4540965.

"Fallopia japonica". CABI, Invasive Species Compendium. https://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/23875

Higgins, E. Tory; Roney, Christopher J. R.; Crowe, Ellen; Hymes, Charles (1994). "Ideal versus ought predilections for approach and avoidance distinct self-regulatory systems". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 66 (2): 276–286. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.66.2.276. ISSN 1939-1315. PMID 8195986

"Invasive Species". Wikimedia Foundation,Wikipedia.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invasive_species

Nalls, Gayil. “World Sensorium”, olfactory sculpture, 1999.

Ng, Kate. "Fleadom! Holland releases 5,000 fleas to solve knotweed problem".Independent. 202o. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/amsterdam-leaf-fleas-japanese-knotweed-invasive-species-b1251527.html