For the first time in 21 years, Gainesville residents will be asked this holiday weekend to be invader raiders in their own backyards and neighborhoods instead of nature parks.
The annual Great Invader Raider Rally, typically held on a Saturday in January, will be held Friday through Monday in a socially distanced format because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Gainesville Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department has organized many volunteers every year since 2000 to remove invasive plants from local parks and natural areas.
The event’s organizers said the focus this year is on reducing the amount of plants that jump from the community into nature parks.
“We’re asking folks to stay safe and … asking people to do some clean-up work in their own backyards,” said Sally Wazny, an education supervisor at the department’s Morningside Nature Center.
The 2021 rally has an event page on Facebook that includes informational videos about how to identify and remove six different invasive plants that are prevalent in Gainesville: coral ardisia, air potato, skunk vine, cat’s claw vine, Caesar’s weed and sword fern.
Plants are invasive when they can spread rapidly without human help, dominate native species and cause harm to the environment, other plants or crops, people or animals, said Lara Colley, education and outreach coordinator for the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants.
“They over time change the structure of our natural forests because they prevent native plants from being able to establish and grow,” Colley said.
She also said there are lots of ways invasive plants can end up in someone’s yard, including as a pretty addition to a landscape.
“They’re really hard to kill, if not impossible, and they tend to be evergreen in that they aren’t sensitive to the cold temperatures in this area,” Colley said. “So that to me sounds like the perfect plant for my yard.”
Traditionally, Great Invader Raider Rally participants – after a couple hours of volunteer work on one day – gathered to celebrate and give away some prizes at the nature center.
This year, however, the volunteers will be asked to share photos of themselves and or their group removing plants on the Facebook page or otherwise send pictures to the department. Those who do will be eligible for prizes that will be awarded at a later date, organizers said.
“We’re really hoping that people do post pictures of what they’ve done, not necessarily just to receive that award, but to encourage other people in the community to participate in this event this year in a virtual way, and just to, again, further the knowledge and understanding of what is going on with invasive, exotic plants,” Wazny said.
The event has a history of evolving to meet new circumstances. According to Geoffrey Parks, the department’s nature operations supervisor, it used to be called the Great Air Potato Round-Up. The air potato was very widespread when the event first happened in 2000, Parks said.
“Since a lot of people in the community didn’t even know what an air potato was,” he said, “it just sounded like a sort of crazy, unusual thing, and just I think based on the name a lot of people got interested.”
The event’s focus changed after scientists introduced the air potato leaf beetle into the ecosystem, Parks said.
While not as cute as a beetle, events like the rally help to prevent invasive plants from spreading.
“If we all could take some personal responsibility for the invasive plants impacting areas around us, we can make a big difference in the infestations that are near us,” Colley said.
Charlie Pedersen has been involved in the Great Invader Raider Rally from the beginning, first as a volunteer with the Florida Native Plant Society and now as a Florida Forest Service biologist.
“People and their friends and their Boy Scout troops and their youth groups at church and whatever – whatever folks they’ve got that are capable of going out and pulling weeds – have a chance to do some good on their property and in their neighborhoods,” Pedersen said.
He also said the rally is an opportunity for community members to help one another.
“Maybe your neighbors aren’t full-time weed pullers, or they don’t have a lot of tools or the money to deal with the problem,” Pedersen said. “This is a way to reach across boundaries.”
Below: Pedersen, a Great Invader Raider Rally volunteer since the first event in 2000, explains why this year’s format is a chance for people to help each other remove invasive plants from their neighborhoods.