Living out here among the trees and critters of Oak Hill includes some form of daily yard upkeep, be it raking, picking up fallen limbs, fertilizing, watering or cutting the grass. This morning it was picking up something of another sort out along the back fence separating me from the national wild life refuge. Southern Florida is plagued by a wild potato plant that rivals kudzu in its ability to spread, take over and ultimately kill other species. Left unchecked, the air potato can quickly get out of hand, weaving a mat of shade over everything within reach. The task today was gathering up the fallen potatoes and pulling up any newly sprouted tendrils. I collected a bag of about twenty-five in a matter of minutes.
Native to Asia and Africa where it is a food crop, the air potato (Dioscorea bulbifera) is an extremely fast-growing invasive species that rapidly takes over wooded areas. Established in the US by gardeners who admired its attractive leaves, unfortunately it soon spread beyond garden borders and is now wreaking havoc on pinelands and hardwood trees, displacing native trees and plants. The wild variety growing in Florida is considered toxic. It was first sent to Florida in 1905 for evaluation as a horticultural crop and subsequent reports from scientists and horticulturalists warned about how quickly it spread. Disregarding that warning, gardeners promoted the air potato as an attractive garden plant. Even today it is still grown by curious amateur gardeners.
The air potato gets its unusual name from the small warty potato-like tubers, or bulbils that grow from its vine. It is a climbing plant that twists itself into around and over shrubs and trees, even reaching the tops of trees sixty or more feet tall. Not at all a delicate plant, it blankets everything it grows on, starving the plants beneath it for sunlight. Once established in the wild, it begins producing countless small bulbils on its stems, with one as small as a fingernail capable of sprouting and resulting in a new plant. The bulbils in their early stages are light enough to float and travel long distances, and while at one time only a problem in Hawaii and Florida, the air potato is spreading along the Gulf Coast and finding new ground in which to spread.
In its native countries the potato is sometimes used as a folk remedy to treat conjunctivitis, diarrhea, dysentery and other ailments, but the strain growing wild in Florida is considered by most to be poisonous. Contradicting stories have created confusion over the Florida air potato’s actual toxicity, with some claiming that the wild variety are edible if they are dried and boiled.
As if I didn't already have enough trouble with squirrels getting in the bird feeder, I find now that the pesky devils spread air potatoes around the yard.