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Posted 4/2/2014

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By Erica Skolte

It’s almost like a scene from a science fiction movie. Florida is being taken over by…potatoes.


What do you do when foreign potatoes invade and attempt to take over the native plants? You try to “nip it in the spud!”

Volunteers observed National Invasive Species Awareness Week in a “hands-on” way, by participating in the 8th Annual Air Potato Roundup March 1, hosted by the First Coast Invasive Working Group.

“People often wonder how they can get involved and help out,” said biologist Jessica Spencer. “The annual Air Potato Roundup is a family-friendly event where people of all ages – even little ones – can get outdoors together and make a difference. Last year, 162 volunteers removed a combined 4,940 pounds of air potatoes from nine sites. This year, we removed almost twice as much. Invasive species such as air potato smother our native plants and are one of the greatest ecological threats to natural communities in Florida. Roundup volunteers help protect and conserve Florida’s natural areas through the removal of air potato.”

“Volunteers collected the ‘potatoes’ that grow on the vines and drop to the ground during the winter. Each of these potatoes will sprout a new vine that can grow extremely quickly – about eight inches per day. It climbs to the tops of trees and takes over native plants. The potatoes can survive for 20 years and produce thousands of new potatoes during that time,” said Spencer. “This event helps to raise awareness about invasive species, and gives us a platform to talk about other species, not just air potato. It helps to get people involved in their community and gets them outside.”

“This year, we collected 9,257 pounds of air potato during our First Coast Roundup,” said Tina Gordon, co-chair of the First Coast Invasive Working Group and Coastal Training Program Coordinator at Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. “Howell Park came in with the most weight, about 2,600 pounds; and Jacksonville Arboretum had the most volunteers, with 74 people. Our two largest potatoes came from Tree Hill Nature Center, at a whopping 40.6 centimeters and 38.1 centimeters.”

For some, the event was a family affair. Riley and Madi Lane joined their parents, who are both “regulars” on the battlefield against invasive species. Their father, Jon Lane, is the chief of the Invasive Species Management Branch. Their mother, Kitty Lane, demonstrates Invasive Plant Curriculum throughout the state of Florida as the outreach coordinator for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants (UF/IFAS CAIP)-Invasive Plant Education Initiative. The family spent the day collecting air potatoes near Montclair Elementary School in Orange Park. “We all agree that removing invasive plants makes us feel like we have done something good for the woods where our dogs run, the ecosystem and ultimately the planet,” said Kitty Lane.

Work sites also included the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, Tillie K. Fowler Park, Jacksonville University, Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, Tree Hill Nature Center and the Jacksonville Arboretum and Gardens in Jacksonville; Howell Park in Atlantic Beach; Fort Mose Historic State Park and St. Johns River State College in St. Augustine; and Montclair Elementary School and St. Johns River State College in Orange Park.

Based on the calls that Spencer received about the event, it is likely that they will reach out to additional sites for the event next year. The dates will again be coordinated to coincide with National Invasive Species Week.

The event also generated many calls from homeowners about how to deal with air potato in their own yards and how to dispose of the air potatoes. Spencer recommends throwing the air potatoes out with the regular garbage, where they will be covered with so much other material that they will decompose rather than sprout.

For more information on backyard air potato management, visit http://1.usa.gov/1g5HyKv.

“Thank you to everyone who participated in the Air Potato Roundup and helped to spread the word about invasives in our communities,” said Gordon. “We hope that you will join us again next year.”