It’s like an Easter egg hunt, but far less colorful and a bit more challenging.
That’s how nature experts are attacking a pesky nuisance in a Fort Lauderdale park.
Saturday’s Great Air Potato Round-Up at Snyder Park is a contest of sorts with the goal of ridding the park of the invasive vine that covers native trees and shrubs, preventing sun from getting in.
The idea of the roundup is simple: Collect as many of the air potatoes, or bulbils, that have fallen off the vines as possible. But the task may prove tricky because of their brown color — and the fact that some are as tiny as a pearl — they can be hard to find.
“We are hoping this type of event will not only be fun, but help us combat the problem,” said Fort Lauderdale forester F. Gene Dempsey.
The air potato, which scientists believe came to the United States as an ornamental plant in 1905 from Asia, has taken over a huge part of the canopy at the 90-plus-acre Snyder Park, which includes a nature preserve and a dog park. In fact, the invasive plant — which is one of many that have found its way to South Florida including the melaleuca or Brazilian pepper — has taken up residence in parks and natural preserves across Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
So, what good are air potatoes?
The underground tubers, a variety of yam, can be eaten. One species is bitter, another is sweet.
But the bulbils being plucked from the park are good for nothing.
For decades, researchers, biologists and other experts have tried a variety of methods to rid the natural areas of air potatoes. But because tthe vines grow at a rate of up to 10 inches a day and produce thousands of potatoes that re-sprout, they’re hard to bring under control. The vine can climb trees and often completely covers smaller species including Sabal Palms and shrubs. Removing the potatoes is hard work and costly, experts said.
“I don’t think at this point it is something we will be able to eradicate,” said Patricia Howell, a natural resource specialist with Broward County. “We just need to get it under control.”
More than a year ago, after extensive tests, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Invasive Plant Research Laboratory in Fort Lauderdale began releasing beetles, formally known as Lilioceris chenis, into parks and natural areas. The beetles, which come from China, feed off the heart-shaped leaves of the air potato plant.
Min Rayamajhi, research plant pathologist with the USDA, said it’s too early to tell yet what effect the bugs are having on the vine, but there has been some progress.
A patch of Snyder Park, not part of Saturday’s roundup, was one of the test areas for the beetles. Dempsey showed off the native plants that have been able to flourish in the patch where the beetles were.
“This is just one way of doing it,” he said.
In Miami-Dade, of the approximately 80 nature preserves with more than 2,500 acres 46 have an air potato problems, said Joe Maguire, Miami-Dade County’s natural areas manager.
“We have been able to slow it down,” he said.
At the Deering Estate at Cutler, workers have reduced the area to a handful of hotspots. He said removing the underground roots is the only way to prevent regrowth.
At Kendall Indian Hammock Park, which according to Maguire does not receive much funding, researchers are working with students at Terra Environmental Research Institute to breed the beetles that can be released. Biologist Eduardo Saldecedo said the research will help control the air potato population in the future.
“We are learning a lot about it,” he said. including how best to stop the growth of the vine.
Howell said that in Broward, about 12 of the county’s more than 20 natural preserves have air potatoes. She said Tree Tops Park in Davie used to be saturated with them but four-month long roundup contests helped. The vine has also made its way to private homes.
“It’s something that needs to be done constantly,” she said.
Dempsey said he hopes the roundup will be the beginning of an ongoing effort to remove the potatoes. The roundup will concentrate on a five- to six-acre area that will have mowed with pathways to make it easier to get into the wooded area. The ground is now littered with potatoes because the vine sprouts in the spring and dies in the fall. And when it dies the potatoes fall to the ground. The bulbils can then turn into vines for the next year.
Participants, who are being asked to wear closed-toe shoes and long pants, will get trophies for the densest potato and the heaviest bucket.
The potatoes will then go in the back of a truck and be hauled “far away,” to a landfill or incinerator, Dempsey said.
“There are more than enough here to keep everyone busy.”