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Gainesville Volunteers Work to Eradicate Invasive Plant

Coral Ardisia is just one of dozens of non-native species that have been introduced to Florida (Romy Ellenbogen/WUFT News)
Coral Ardisia is just one of dozens of non-native species that have been introduced to Florida (Romy Ellenbogen/WUFT News)

The shiny, bright red berries of Coral Ardisia plants may look appealing to gardeners, but the plant’s appearance hides its invasive nature.

“They’re quite pretty when you don’t understand what they’re doing,” said Colette Jacono, research scientist at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Coral Ardisia is just one of dozens of non-native species that have been introduced to Florida. The invasive plants spread rapidly and cause a competition for resources, resulting in other plants dying out. They spread across river's marshes and dense woodlands, showing up in bunches of shrubs that prohibit the native plants from growing.

Stephen Enloe, a researcher at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants, said the invasive species acclimated to the climate in Gainesville especially well.

On Saturday, more than 900 volunteers across Gainesville helped clear up bunches of the plants at the third annual Great Invader Raider Rally. Enloe said the event used to be called the Great Air Potato Roundup but changed when the introduction of the potato leaf beetle reduced the air potato population.

“It became difficult to find and collect the (air potatoes) in places where they had found and collected them for years, because the insect was having such a profound impact upon them,” Enloe said. “So it’s a success story. It’s wonderful.”

Min Rayamajhi, a plant pathologist at the United States Department of Agriculture, said testing of the beetle began in 2002. They were finally approved and proven to not cause extra harm in 2011. Now the beetles are in more than 60 counties.

Rayamajhi said the beetles often disappear during cold winter months, making them less effective in Northern areas. However, he said they have been overwhelmingly positive and effective at eating away the air potato.

No such beetle exists for the Coral Ardisia plant. Instead, those trying to eradicate the plant rely on volunteer contribution and the spread of information.

Sally Wazny, the Morningside Nature Center's education supervisor, said Coral Ardisia spreads through natural areas but has no wildlife value. The center helps coordinate the invasive species roundup by sending volunteers to 26 different sites. At most of these sites, Coral Ardisia is the main target.

“We don’t have biological agents that help you control those, so it’s people power,” Wazny said. “This event is bringing that people power together, where you have over 900 folks registered for the event. It’s that people power that will help restore these natural areas.”

Other cleanups will be held on the first Saturday of each month as part of the Gainesville Greenway Challenge, Wazny said.

On Thursday, there will also be another cleanup as part of the “Give Back Thursday” initiative. The Greenway Challenge, organized through the Gainesville Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, kicked off at the beginning of last year and has continued to prioritize removing invasive species, Wazny said.

The upcoming cleanups consist of smaller groups, which lets them focus on harder-to-remove invasive species like the camphor tree and Caesar’s weed.

Education is another key facet to fighting invasive species, Wazny said.

The Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council puts together an annual list of invasive species, which Jacono assists with.

“I think when you’re talking about invasive species, your word is prevention,” she said. “This is where education is the most important, so as not to bring these species in.”

Jacono said the council's list of species helps with this knowledge, but encourages people to seek information about the plants they plan to use in their gardens, especially since seemingly ordinary plants, chosen for aesthetic value, can end up driving out native plants.

“Know your plants, know your species,” Jacono said.

Romy Ellenbogen is a reporter with WUFT News. She can be reached at romye@ufl.edu