National Invasive Species Week, held March 2 through 8, focused on raising awareness of non-native threats to local ecosystems and endangered species. Invasive species smother native plants and are one of the greatest ecological threats to natural communities, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which also estimates the costs to prevent, monitor and control invasive species at about $137 billion annually.
An invasive, non-native plant is a species outside its natural range that displaces native species and disrupts ecosystem processes. The second greatest threat to the more than 500 endangered and threatened species in Florida is adverse effects from invasive non-native plants, according to the Florida Exotic Plant Council.
Biologist Jessica Spencer was among the 162 volunteers participating in the 7th annual First Coast Air Potato Roundup, held March 2. The volunteers removed a combined 4,940 pounds of air potatoes from nine sites in Jacksonville, Fla. The air potato is an invasive vine from southeast Asia, thought to have come to the United States via Africa during the slave trade. It grows very quickly – up to 8 inches per day – and can reach more than 70 feet in length, according to the University of Florida Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants website. Air potato typically climbs to the top of trees and overtakes native plants.
Spencer also demonstrated how to identify and eradicate air potato March 16 at one of the sites participating in the 18th Annual St. Johns River Cleanup. The city of Jacksonville and its mayor asked residents to take part in cleaning up the St Johns River, a critical component of the city’s economy and culture. Volunteers removed litter and debris from parks, neighborhoods, creeks and boat ramps.
Following the cleanup, Spencer spoke to community members at the Riverside Arts Market about gardening and finding alternatives to invasive plants. Many were curious about how to rid their yards of air potatoes. Invasive plants can reduce biodiversity, resulting in loss of habitat and food sources for native insects, birds and other wildlife, and changing natural ecological systems, according to the Florida Plant Society.