Hyunsuh Kim

Japanese Knotweed; or, The Urban Frankenstein's "Monster"

Debunking urban lores surrounding the invasive plant

The plant is often described as the destructive force of nature that strangles and suffocates metal pipes from inside out and demolishes concrete buildings. Yet, reality is far from this horror story. In proposing the Japanese knotweed as the Dutch national flower, we examine the ways in which Japanese knotweed interacts with us and and our imaginations in our urban life.

This year, the Dutch government enacted the unprecedented exemption on the ban of introducing foreign species to the country in order to eradicate the Japanese knotweed using Japanese leaf fleas (Ng). On the outset, this action seems to be a clever embodiment of "an eye for an eye": "a foreign weapon for a foreign enemy". However, as much as the Japanese knotweed is despised and "combatted" here in the Netherlands, much of its infamous reputation in the context of urban infrastructure may be just that— a widespread belief.

The Japanese knotweed is considered a pest in European cities that grow through the smallest cracks between cement blocks and pipelines, in its spread destroying these infrastructures. However, systematic research on this issue has revealed that the species has a minor impact on urban infrastructures— the only plants that are capable of causing such damage are high water-use tree species (Fennell et al). Japanese knotweed often grow in the cracks of buildings, which have frequently led many to believe that they are the cause for the cracks, but no link has been found between the plant's growth and building damage . As the researchers put it, “the frequently stated ability of F. japonica to 'grow through concrete' is simply not supported by any evidence, as it is not possible due to the laws and principles of physics and biology”.

Yet in 2019, the municipality of Amsterdam allocated 8.2 million euros into diligently clearing monuments, quays and sewers from Japanese knotweed (Heijden). In the UK, lenders have even refused mortgage applications whenever the plant was found in the garden or neighboring garden, which further increased resentment against the plant by the property owners who cannot receive loans, and their several attempts to “eradicate it by digging out the plant to a depth of about three metres with an excavator”, only to see it grow back the following year ("Dudley widow faces uncertain future after home left worthless by knotweed"; "Fallopia Japonica”). 

Vergroot

Japanese knotweed eradication - Eradication of Japanese knotweed in Northern Ireland. Image source: Geograph. https://www.geograph.ie/photo/4194866

Why all the fuss? It appears to me that the very ability of Japanese knotweed to coexist with concrete, so readily mingling with and leaning onto man-built structures, being a plant that (doesn’t) love a wall, creates an unsettling tension for those of us who would rather keep the two spheres separate.

In Floriade whisperings, a series of audio recordings that retell the stories of the plants of Amstelpark as imagined from their perspectives, artists Krijn Christiaansen and Cathelijne Montens describe the Japanese knotweed as one that is “creepy, calculating and used to being abused and rejected” (Christiaansen & Montens). Emigrating from the volcanic slopes of East Asia to the sidewalks of Europe and America, it is an "adventurer" and a "classic example of a survivor". Christiaansen and Montens personify this once cherished, now despised plant with a vengeful, malicious voice:

"They dumped me along the borders of the Amstel river, or the verges of that stinkin’ 18 motorway, they have attacked with boiling water, with pigs, with streamers and bush-cutters, and even liquid nitrogen! They shout “No foreign plants here!” and trample on me, and that is something you should never do to a Japanese knotweed." 

While this work provides a chance for visitors to contextualize Japanese knotweed in its history, it is also arguable that the work does not escape from the familiar rhetoric of the plant framed as a villain, a killer, as the Japanese knotweed literally strangles the neighboring Lily Gracia plant to death towards the climax of the audio recording. The narration concludes by calling the plant the epitome of a “primordial force which borders on a violent beauty”. Yet, criticisms can be raised about how Japanese knotweed serves as a symbol to antagonize nature against culture, while the more complex part of the story shows that artificial infrastructures have assisted its propagation as much as they resisted it from the beginning of its "invasion". Furthermore, the artwork reproduces the male-villain-and-female-victim trope in conveying such antagonism, despite the fact that most Japanese knotweed plants in Europe are female clones of the single octaploid variant that was first brought into the Netherlands. As much as the work aims to provide a non-anthropocentric perspective to the story of the plant, it all too quickly returns to the familiar narratives.

Reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), I remember having asked the same question over and over again: Why do people find it unacceptable to embrace the poor distraught creature into their community? The creature may have repulsive facial features, but can that be the only reason for such an immediate and deep loathing towards him? After all, Victor Frankenstein already knew how his creature would look like as he was making him. So why the rejection? Standing on the borders between life and death, mind and body, God and humankind, nature and culture, the creature evokes a much deeper fear than any physical deformity can, through its very existence which destabilizes every preexistent structure of beliefs that we know of. The Japanese knotweed, as are many other so-called invasive plants (and urban "pests") that were introduced to the foreign environment by humans, is conceived as the monster of our own demise— its thriving comes across as a natural force that avenges all human aspiration to surmount it.

 

References

Christiaansen, Krijn, & Cathelijne Montens.Floriade fluisteringen:'Origin', listen to the memoirs of Lily Gracia and the Japanese Knotweed.2020, streaming audio, SoundCloud, https://soundcloud.com/user-845693625/listen-to-the-memoir-of-lily-gracia-and-the-japanese-knotweed

"Dudley widow faces uncertain future after home left worthless by knotweed"Dudley News. (2014). https://www.dudleynews.co.uk/news/10969202.dudley-widow-faces-uncertain-future-after-home-left-worthless-by-knotweed/

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

Fennell, Mark, Max Wade, and Karen L. Bacon. "Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica): an analysis of capacity to cause structural damage (compared to other plants) and typical rhizome extension."PeerJ 6(2018): e5246. Gale Academic OneFile https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A560362436/AONE?u=amst&sid=AONE&xid=d22c4e06.

Heijden, Berry van der. "Bestrijding Japanse duizendknoop kan Breda miljoenen kosten, elektrocutie lijkt te werken". Brabants Nieuwsblad and De Stem, (2020). https://www.bndestem.nl/breda/bestrijding-japanse-duizendknoop-kan-breda-miljoenen-kosten-elektrocutie-lijkt-te-werken~ae54eff3/?referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F#:~:text=%2C%2CDe%20hoge%20kosten%20van%20bestrijding,de%2010.000%20en%2050.000%20euro.%E2%80%9D

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