SAFETY HARBOR — There is an infestation of invasive vines on city property. What should Safety Harbor do?
A) Rent or buy some hungry goats.
B) Release exotic-plant-eating beetles.
C) Hire prisoners to cut the vines.
D) All of the above.
It may sound like a joke, but Safety Harbor is considering those options to get rid of air potato plants that spread wildly in recent years, strangling thousands of trees with piles of thick vines that can grow 8 inches a day or 70 feet in a single summer.
Native to Asia and Africa, each air potato vine drops hundreds of brown "potatoes" as small as a pea or large as a melon. Each one sprouts more vines, which in turn drop hundreds more potatoes.
People first imported the plant for their gardens, attracted to its green heart-shaped leaves.
But the plants have spread throughout Florida and other tropical states, with many people unaware that they are killing trees and disrupting natural habitats.
"It's almost like a science fiction plant. That's the best way I can put it," said resident Joe Caisse, picking his way through the vines on the 10-acre Messenger property owned by the city. "It's like the Little Shop of Horrors or some 1950s horror movie when the plant kills everything in its path."
For years, Safety Harbor residents have battled the noxious weed with early-morning "potato roundups," gathering the potatoes from the ground and ripping the vines from the trees.
As in other cities, the roundups kept the plants largely in check until the past year or two, when they started to multiply aggressively. Nobody seems to know why.
To understand the tenacity of the air potato plant, consider this:
Gary Greer, whose yard backs up to the Messenger property near Marshall Street, said he once left a few air potatoes in a bag in his garage. He came out days later to find vines crawling up to shelving and winding tight.
"It needs no sunlight, no water, nothing," he said. "It's unbelievable."
He has tried to kill the plants with a weed whacker, chain saw, machete, electric carving knife and various chemical sprays.
But those tools are no match for the combative vine, which pulled the chain off the chain saw and seemed undeterred by herbicide and bleach.
Frustrated, Greer researched what it would take for the city to get some goats, winning early support from Commissioner Nancy Besore, who said she's "very much in favor of the idea."
City Manager Matt Spoor said he doesn't want the city to take on the liability of owning livestock.
But, he added with a laugh, he might be open to renting them.
A handful of companies — mostly in the mountainous Appalachian area — rent out herds of goats to people or municipalities that want to clear parks or lawns. Florida doesn't appear to have any such companies, but a few people advertise goat rentals on Craigslist.
Goats are low maintenance, but the city would still need a moveable fence. The animals would also need protection from Safety Harbor's coyotes, which may think of the goats as a tasty overnight meal.
A donkey could ward off coyotes with a powerful kick, so the city may need to rent one of those, too.
Brian Knox, owner of Maryland rent-a-goat company Eco-Goats, said as far as he knows goats are untested when it comes to air potato control. They may not eat the potatoes (which are bitter) or be able to get at the roots. But they might be able to clear enough brush to make the problem more manageable.
"Goats enable you to see what you've got," he said. "Try it out and see how it goes."
Spoor said the city has also discussed hiring supervised prisoners to cut down the vines.
Another option: releasing plant-eating beetles.
In August, Largo released 300 state-harvested Asian beetles that eat air potato plants. So far this year, the state has released more than 30,000 of the bugs in 16 Florida counties, including Hillsborough and now Pinellas.
Largo Parks Division assistant Gary Doyle said the city is pleased with the beetles, which are killing the plants.
But some Safety Harbor residents are leery of inviting one exotic species to get rid of another.
"I think we're all a little skeptical," said resident Gisela Bennie, who spends hours every week pulling air potato vines from around Safety Harbor. "When you import something like that, you never know quite what's going to happen."
Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.