Picking, plucking and pulling: Tackling invasive species

By C.J. McCartney



There is an invading ground force working its way across our natural areas, communities and neighborhoods knocking out anything standing in its way. Without a stop button, invasive plants are wrecking our natural landscapes.

Forests disappear under the canopy of old-world climbing fern, and trees crumble under the vines of air potatoes. We witnessed red bay trees being obliterated by just one invasive beetle that now is eying Florida’s avocado trees. And on it goes.

No longer just standing by, communities and groups are working together to remove invasive plants and animals, restoring Florida’s natural landscape.

Starting Monday, National Invasive Species Awareness Week (NISW) kicks off to educate the country about reducing and eradicating invasives threatening the environment. As part of NISW, groups all over the country are holding various events focusing on the toughest invasive threats in their area.

St. Augustine’s local events are focusing on the invasive air potato vine.

Air potato roundups

Air potatoes are such a big-time threat they get their own annual roundup. Every winter its vines drop potatoes to the ground while its underground root system furtively seeks out fresh territory. Meanwhile, the vines are climbing to new heights covering and smothering all the surrounding trees and plants. It’s a triple threat — air, land, underground.

For the past 11 years, air potato roundups have been held from Fernandina Beach to Palatka. St. Johns River State College’s (SJRSC) local campus is holding its third air potato roundup today.

SJRSC student Cybill Winkel is participating in this year’s roundup.

“We tackle air potatoes from all directions — from pulling vines down to digging up roots,” Winkel said. “It’s rewarding.”

The college’s site captain, Environmental Professor Lonnie Kaczmarsky, Ph.D., said, “We are getting it under control – from over 100 pounds of potatoes the first year to just 15 pounds last year.”

Now he views the roundups more as an educational opportunity to teach both students and community about invasives.

Shrinking air potatoes

Jessica Spencer, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers biologist, said that success with the regional air potato roundups is showing how “volunteers can make such a significant difference.”

In 2014, volunteers rounded up 79,000 pounds of air potatoes, and last year, they collected just 685 pounds. Yep, you read right — 79K to 685 in three years.

It’s working.

With this success under their belts, the Army Corps of Engineers plans to focus on other invasive plants harming Florida’s landscape.

Joining in the air potato fight is a little beetle with an insatiable appetite for air potato vines.

Spencer explained how Florida’s Department of Agriculture bio-control program is so successful they are having a hard time finding enough air potatoes to feed the beetles. So all the potatoes collected from the regional roundups are donated to the research facility. Beetles are available to homeowners and communities for free.

Disney jumps in

Another important NISW event is located near Kissimmee. The Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve is holding a week-long series of programs and displays focusing on invasive species.

Located at the head of the Greater Everglades Watershed, the preserve’s 11,500 acres were brought back to the near pristine conditions described by the area’s first Spanish missionaries.

Now viewed as a national model for conservation and management, it took two decades, teamwork and cooperation to make this restoration a success.

Even here, the fight to keep invasives out is ongoing. Old-world climbing fern and Cogon grass don’t respect boundaries and keep invading the preserve. Burning helps keep Cogon grass knocked back, but those pesky fern spores like to hitch a ride on your shoes and clothes and continue to crop up.

Cody-Marie Miller, the preserve’s invasive species coordinator, said anyone can come out and help on their work days as well as learn about the threat of invasive plants and animals to Florida’s landscape.

Join the beetles

Success stories are out there. One-by-one, people are making a difference. Scientists are figuring out bio-controls. Some feisty beetles are fighting to turn the tide on air potato vines.

You too can join the fight to save Florida’s neighborhoods, natural areas and rivers from this invasive force of plants and animals. Be the difference!