The enemy for these work crews: air potatoes


Parker Stevens sorts through his findings during the 13th Annual Great Air Potato Roundup at Kirkwood on Saturday, January 28, 2011 in Gainesville, Fla. The event was hosted by the City of Gainesville's Department of parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs as an opportunity for volunteers to collect air potatoes and other invasive plants from natural areas in Gainesville.

Max Reed / Correspondent
Published: Saturday, January 28, 2012 at 8:48 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 28, 2012 at 8:48 p.m.

Decked out in rain boots and multi-colored gardening gloves, Allison and Bailey Diem could not wait to storm the grounds of Brentwood School and wreak havoc in the mud.

They were on a mission Saturday to save the land from North Central Florida's invasive species and natural enemy: the air potato.

"We're the Diem family!" Allison, 4, said. "We found billions. Look! I can't even count."

The pair said they always love to play in the mud, and since air potatoes are often found in low-lying, muddy areas, Saturday's 13th Annual Great Air Potato Roundup gave them plenty of opportunity.

Bailey, as a member of the Daisy troop 381, was assigned to the area around Brentwood along with seven other troop members and their families. Other groups were assigned to various locations across Gainesville.

A Girl Scouts group, plenty of parents and University of Florida Kappa Delta sorority members joined the cleanup crew at Brentwood. After collecting air potatoes, all cleanup crews from the numerous sites were invited to a celebration at the Morningside Nature Center.

Charlie Pedersen, biologist and leader of the Brentwood cleanup site, said though the event is a lot of fun, the mission is a serious one. He explained that the air potato vine is unchallenged by any other species and therefore takes over greenery all across North Central Florida.

"Exotic plants are a big problem in Florida," he said. "There's a lot of problems with exotics. This is a good educational campaign."

Pedersen said the site he was assigned to lead was the perfect location for the kids as opposed to areas assigned to older groups that require more climbing and navigating.

"As a kid, I was into gardening," he said. "This site is not that far gone. It's a good learning opportunity for the kids. It's nice that the school lets all these native plant wackos pull out their weeds. I really appreciate them."

The environment and the potatoes allowed the children a sense of messy adventure.

"There's a nice, big layer of muddy sludge," he said. "(Air potatoes) have that nice snotty texture. When it freezes and snots up it's magic."

The air potato spreads when feeder creeks such as the wetlands behind Brentwood carry them to bigger water bodies.

"Hogtown Creek floodplains," he said. "That's the sort of thing it could take over."

Pedersen said the federal government is currently working on a biological control for the fast-growing vine, which was introduced to Florida by humans because of its heart-shaped leaf and ability to decorate gardens quickly.

Jenni Bolton, leader of the Girl Scout crew, said they were happy to be able to help the community prevent the spread of the invasive plant.

"We came to this event last year," she said. "The girls loved it. It's unusual and something they wouldn't normally get to do. We won't see them for a while now, they're under all that stuff."

The pesky potatoes were no match for the children, however, especially the Diem sisters.

"Maybe we'll get it up to the top (of the bucket)," Allison said of their collection of air potatoes.

Bailey reminded her little sister that the potatoes were for collection only.

"We're not gonna eat them," Bailey said.

Allison agreed for one simple reason.

"They're dirty."

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