Locals round up air potatoes


Air potatoes sit on the Weirdest and Largest Air Potato table during the Ninth Annual Great Air Potato Roundup at the Morningside Nature Center on Saturday.

CHARLES ROOP/Special to The Sun
Published: Sunday, January 27, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 27, 2008 at 12:08 a.m.

Its long unmerciful vines curl and twine through innocent trees, wrapping around its towering prey, suffocating its victims.

But now in the dead of winter, when it lies shriveled and dry, it has met its match: a volunteer with gloves and a bucket.

The vines have no where to crawl to; all that is left is surrender.

On Saturday morning in cold, rainy weather, more than 900 volunteers gathered at 33 sites across Gainesville to embark on the task of rounding up as many of the intrusive air potato plants as possible - all part of the Ninth Annual Great Air Potato Roundup.

Strategically organized by the City of Gainesville, Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Nature Operations Division, the event, according to program coordinator Sally Wazny, gives the community a chance to come together to work to get rid of the air potato, an invasive plant that has taken over in many areas of Gainesville.

"The other focus is more of an educational focus, to teach people about the benefit of removing this plant, how to remove it and why they are so bad," Wazny added.

The air potato is a non-native, exotic plant that competes with other plants in their natural areas during warm months but is dormant during the winter, said Dr. Kenneth Langeland of the UF Agronomy department.

In addition to competing with local vegetation, the air potato also spreads quickly and can rapidly grow 60 to 70 feet in length.

According to an article published by Langeland, the air potato has been listed by the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council as one of Florida's most invasive plant species since 1993.

"Air potatoes will take over yards and entire communities. It has already killed three trees on my property," said Ludovica Weaver, marketing technician for the Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Nature Operations Division.

In previous years, the event has removed more than 60 tons of air potatoes, officials say.

"The roundups have been amazingly successful. One of our land management personnel did the math and the tonnage of air potatoes that were removed overall equaled two African elephants," Wazny said.

On Saturday, roundup participants included old and young, women and men.

Lynda Dillon, 62, who also volunteered last year, came out despite the rain and chilly weather with her 7-year-old grandson. They were stationed at the J.J. Finley Elementary School's site.

"It was a lot prettier last time, but we have rain coats and gloves," Dillon said.

At 11 a.m., after collecting trash and air potatoes for nearly two hours, volunteers converged on Morningside Nature Center for a celebration. They were greeted with music, free food and a complimentary T-shirt.

In all, more than 5,000 pounds of air potatoes had been collected, officials said.

"The weather kept some of the volunteers away, but it was still a great success," said Wazny. "There was fantastic food and music, 900 people came and collected 2 1/2 tons. You just can't beat that."

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