Stroll through any local park, greenspace or back yard and chances are you’ll be able to spot a pretty green plant that features heart-shaped leaves and a long twining vine.
It’s officially called Dioscorea bulbifera, but it’s more commonly known as the air potato, a plant that is a native of Asia that was introduced in Florida in 1905.
And while the name is cute and its appearance can be pretty, the air potato is anything but harmless; in fact it is so destructive, it has been listed as one of Florida’s most invasive plant species since 1993.
What Are Air Potatoes?
According to the University of Florida’s Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants, Dioscorea bulbifera is actually a member of the yam family. It is a twining vine that can grow to 70 feet in length and is characterized by large heart-shaped leaves arranged alternately on stems.
One unique characteristic of the air potato is its rapid growth. The air potato can grow roughly eight inches per day, climbing trees and quickly taking over anything in its path while choking off air, sunlight and water supplies.
Another aspect of the plant that makes it difficult to eradicate is the fact that each leaf produces one potato bulb. When those bulbs fall to the ground, they are able to resprout a whole new plant, starting the destructive cycle all over again.
Where Can You Find Air potato Plants?
Air potato plants are common throughout Florida, from Gainesville to the Keys, and unfortunately Safety Harbor is not exempt from its twining wrath; the vines can be found pretty much everywhere, from public parks to private yards.
According to Safety Harbor Recreation Facility Manager Julie Inman, the plants can be found all over town.
“Basically they are everywhere throughout the city. Lots at Marshall Street Park, the Community Center, Mullet Creek and the Museum and Cultural Center,” Inman said.
“Many behind Marshall Street are 20 feet high and rising quickly,” she added. “It’s really pretty back there. Unfortunately it is infested with air potato plants smothering the native plants.”
Community leader Gisela Bennie took Patch on a tour of some areas in town where the plant is prevalent. She said because the plants look nice, it makes it difficult for people to realize how dangerous they are.
“They’re pretty as leaves, but the vines get tough as rope and choke everything off,” she said as she showed examples the infestation along North Bayshore Boulevard.
“And it doesn’t need any light, soil or water to grow. It’s a real danger to our environment.”
What Can Be Done to Get Rid of Air Potatoes?
Through the Partners in the Park program, Inman and community volunteers conducted a couple of recent expeditions to help eradicate air potatoes.
“We removed potatoes ... and we were pulling vines,” she said. “It’s easier to pick up potatoes, but pulling vines makes the problem more evident, as they are easier to see and to see their destruction.”
Inman said there were roughly 50 volunteers helping with the second effort, which netted two dumpsters filled with vines and potatoes.
But she admitted the effort to eliminate air potatoes could be a futile one without more help.
“We are searching for a Friend of the Park or 'Potato Posse' to adopt some of these different problem areas,” Inman said. “Someone to monitor the issue at the various sites and help to arrange roundups and organize volunteers.”
“As of now we are realizing the problem will never be totally eradicated. We can only control it.”
Bennie, who said she is passionate about the problem, concurred with Inman’s assessment.
“It’s such a pretty vine, but it’s got to come out. This is not just an infestation, it’s a nightmare.”
To find out more about Safety Harbor's air potato problem and what you can do to help, contact Recreation Facility Manager Julie Inman at email@example.com.