The battle rages on against Dioscorea bulbifera, the invasive species better known as the air potato.
Several hundred volunteers attended Gainesville’s 15th annual Great Air Potato Round-Up. This year’s theme was “Taters of the Lost Park.” Registered volunteers pulled and pruned weeds on Jan. 25 to clear native vegetation overgrown with the invasive plant.
Gainesville resident Laura Smoot volunteered with her family at the Round-Up. Both Smoot’s daughters were at the event with their Girl Scouts troop.
Smoot described the air potatoes as looking like “any normal baked potato you could put in the microwave and cook at home.”
Air potatoes do look like regular potatoes, but this invasive species grows on a vine, not in the ground.
The plant is native to Asia, not Florida, said Stephen Brown, horticultural program leader agent at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension.
Classified as a Florida state-listed noxious weed, the air potato can grow up to 8 inches per day and overtake native plants.
The Florida Exotic Pet Council has classified the air potato as a Category I invasive plant species, meaning it has caused enough damage to alter native plant communities by displacing native species and impacting wildlife and ecological systems.
The $50 million cost to manage all invasive species is considered minor compared to the ecological impact, according to the 2008 Florida Invaders Publication.
“They were kind of hidden,” Smoot said. “We had to go into some pretty unusual places with lots of vines and thorns to pick them up.”
Merald Clark, a nature guide at Gainesville’s Morningside Nature Center, spoke about the silent danger in invasive plants like the air potato.
“All sorts of plants and animals are ending up in the wrong part of the world. And without their natural predators, they can often cause a great deal of harm,” he said. “Those that find themselves without natural predators and can just reproduce like crazy can cause all sorts of problems.”
The annual Air Potato Round-Up is one way to attack the plant’s growth and keep it from spreading in Gainesville.
The effort has paid off.
“Many of the sites where air potatoes have invaded have been discontinued because we’ve had such an impact. We’ve reduced the number of air potatoes in the Gainesville area,” Clark said.
The introduction of the Air Potato Leaf Beetle, which feeds on the plant, will also help fight the invasive plant by assisting volunteers’ labor intensive efforts without harming the environment.
“We’ve got a little bit of an assist from this special beetle that’s been brought in to combat the air potato.” Clark said. “The ultimate goal is to put ourselves out of business.”