February is a month filled with special celebrations and events like Valentine’s Day, President’s Day, Groundhog Day, and of course NISAW!

 

NISAW or National Invasive Species Awareness Week isn’t as famous or beloved as the other February dates. You likely won’t get a day off, have a special date or receive a present from your loved ones. However, NISAW is an important time to remember and learn about invasive species that impact our beloved natural areas.

 

Invasive species originate from other continents and have adverse impacts on our native habitats and species. Many of these problem non-natives have nothing to keep them in check since there’s nothing that eats or preys on them in their “new world”.

 

This year NISAW is being celebrated February 24 – 28. It is the largest invasive species awareness effort in the U.S. You can learn more at https://www.nisaw.org/nisaw-2020/

or on Facebook at @invasivespeciesweek. Search other social media outlets using #NISAW or #invasivespecies.

 

We would like you to help celebrate NISAW in a more meaningful way, beyond awareness and clicking a few links or sharing social media posts with your friends. Bay County and Northwest Florida need your help in fighting invasive species this year, especially the air potato vine.

 

Air potato vine originated in Asia and Africa. It was brought to Florida in the early 1900s. People moved this plant with them, having used it in the past for food and medicine. Today, we know raw forms of air potato are toxic and consumption is not recommended. This quick growing vine reproduces from tubers or “potatoes”. The potato drops from the vine and grows into the soil to start new vines. Air potato is especially a problem in disturbed areas like utility easements, which can provide easy entry into forests. Significant damage can occur in areas with heavy air potato infestation because vines can entirely cover large trees. Some sources report vine growth rates up to eight inches per day!

Air potato vines covering shrubs and trees in Bay County Florida.
Photo: Scott Jackson

We plan to start local NISAW activities a few days early on February 22nd, with the collection of air potato vine tubers or potatoes also known as bulbils of this species. Bay County Conservancy will host an “Air Potato Round-Up” behind Panama City Orthopedics in the Audubon Nature Preserve which is located at State Ave and 19th Street. The collection and workday is scheduled from 9am until Noon. Volunteers are encouraged to wear long pants, gloves, comfortable shoes or waterproof boots. Expect a rewarding but dirty job! For details and specific information please contact Teresa Nooney at 850-814-4755.

 

Other communities are promoting other NISAW workdays and events known collectively as “Weed Wrangle”. UF/IFAS Extension Bay County and Escambia County will serve as collection sites for Air Potato vine bulbils through the last week of February as permitted and designated by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS). For additional details contact and coordinate delivery with your county UF/IFAS Extension Office.

Ron Houser weighs collected air potato bulbils.
Photo: Teresa Nooney

Because air potato vine is a regulated invasive species, only UF/IFAS Extension offices working directly with FDACS under their permit will be able to accept air potatoes. Air potatoes must be delivered in person, you cannot mail or ship them. Participating offices are:

UF/IFAS Extension Bay County, https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/bay , 850-248-8091.

UF/IFAS Extension Escambia County, http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/escambia , 850-475-5230.

Unfortunately, mechanical removal of vines and herbicide applications is difficult and may cause harm to desirable plants making it very difficult to manage. Removing and collecting air potato vine tubers helps in the control of this plant. When the potatoes are left in place, they will produce new vines the following spring.

 

The bubils that are collected by local UF/IFAS Extension offices will be given to Florida Department of Consumer Services (FDACS) air potato beetle rearing labs. This will help them raise more beetles that can be distributed throughout the state for establishment and vine control.

Air potato beetle crawling on a leaf stem.
Photo: Julie McConnell

The air potato leaf beetle was released in Florida in 2011. This beetle was originally identified as a natural predator of air potato vine within its native range and was found to be effective in keeping growth in check as well as being safe to other plants because it has such a specific dietary source. Air potato leaf beetles eat only air potato vines! Only after years of extensive research to ensure the safety of Florida ecosystems, was the air potato leaf beetle cleared as for use as a biological control insect to aid in the control of air potato vine.  Air potato beetle releases are monitored and evaluated by United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) researchers and scientists as they continue to establish populations and monitor the work of air potato vine leaf beetles throughout the state.

 

An Equal Opportunity Institution. UF/IFAS Extension, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Nick T. Place, Dean for UF/IFAS Extension. Single copies of UF/IFAS Extension publications (excluding 4-H and youth publications) are available free to Florida residents from county UF/IFAS Extension offices.