LITHIA — It was 38 volunteers versus the air potato plants at Alderman's Ford Park.
After four hours of tugging and gathering on Saturday, victory was in sight: There were 12 trash bags of the invasive vines and 60 pounds of air potatoes in hand.
The group, organized by Randall Middle School teacher Kristi Verdi and the school's service council, attacked vines on the park's north side.
"Every potato counts," said Lonnie Jones, a county environmental specialist. "The potatoes turn into vines."
The air potato is a member of the yam family that scrambles extensively over lower vegetation, climbing trees, covering landscaping and smothering natural ground covers and bushes.
As for the name: The plants have little tubers coming out of them that resemble a potato. They've been a problem here in Florida and surrounding states since the late 1700s.
While the air potato is on the Florida Department of Agricul-
ture and Consumer Services' noxious-weed list, it's close to but not atop the list of the state's most invasive plants.
Florida will spend $1-million on researching invasive plant
species, down 100 percent from last year because of state budget issues, said William Overholt, a University of Florida associate professor who specializes in biological control of invasive plants.
Experts agree that the best way to fight invasive plants is through biological control, and scientists are counting on a tiny insect that feasts on air potatoes. Bob Pemberton of the Invasive Plant Research Laboratory at the University of Florida is studying a leaf beetle from Nepal that feeds on air potatoes.
Only time will tell if the beetle can help to eradicate the air potato. Until then, the battle will be about muscle and manpower. The Hillsborough County parks department invites the community to cull invasive plants twice a year, and other groups often step up to help.
"I'd say we just about got the air potato under control," said Jones, the county environmental specialist. "Cogon grass will be our next project. It spreads spores and rhizomes and it doesn't have a natural predator."
In a month or so, the area cleared by Verdi's crew will be checked for signs of new growth and treated with an herbicide to get the smaller vines.
"I feel that we saved one small corner of earth from the air potato," Verdi said.