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Volunteers battle invasive air potatoes at Dunedin's Hammock Park

DUNEDIN

Walk any of the self-guided trails of Hammock Park to discover what Florida looked like long before air conditioners hummed louder than the katydids.

Smell the cedars. Rest under the pines or gaze up at the majestic palms. Listen to a red-tailed hawk high in a treetop. Snap a photo of a green heron standing in a brackish creek.

If the thought of that splendor disappearing is upsetting, consider joining the new Hammock Park Adoption Program to help save the habitat from destruction.

The culprit is a vine. Entwined around trees and plants, its heart-shaped leaves look harmless. But the potato-looking aerial tubers that drop to the ground can grow hundreds of new vines. To the park's native plants and trees, the air potato is a killer.

"Now, during the high growth season, the plant can grow up to 2 feet a day," said Sue Humphreys, secretary of Friends of the Hammock, a nonprofit corporation established in 1994 to protect the park's natural habitat.

The whole 90-acre park is threatened by the invasive air potato vine that can smother a full-grown tree in one season, according to the Dunedin Parks Department. The vine reproduces with shoots that drop to the ground.

"The members came up with this neat idea to have people adopt an area of the park and remove invasive plants," said Art Finn, Dunedin's parks director. "Anyone who volunteers their time will be doing a great service to helping the forest get healthy again."

While volunteers tend their piece of the park, they will be trained to recognize exotic invasives and be taught how to properly maintain the area through all four seasons. However, the only structured meeting to attend will last less than an hour. The volunteers choose the time they invest in tending the land and pick the size of the parcel they'll maintain.

"The volunteer maintains their area, keeps it free from invasives, and we'll have healthy woods again," said Finn, 55.

That's the goal of the park adoption program. The Friends who work to educate the public about Hammock Park and its 300 native species of birds, trees, shrubs and wildlife hope the people will pitch in to save it.

Humphreys knows that rescuing the habitat is crucial to saving the wildlife. A camper and lover of the outdoors, she's lived in Dunedin since 1993 and Pinellas County since 1952. She thinks of Hammock Park as a hidden treasure.

She understands the dedication it takes to keep the park free of air potatoes. She says it isn't hard, but it isn't necessarily easy either.

"There has to be a commitment to the adopted area," she said. "Some times of the year require more attention than others. The idea of saving the park is overwhelming, but if a lot of people adopt a small part, the habitat can be saved."

Humphreys knows because she maintains a 60- by 100-foot area.

"I chose an area about the size of my yard," she said. "During high season, if all I do is pull a vine off of a tree trunk, I know I saved that tree. So many people walk their dogs in the park every day or take their children to the playground. If those people or those families adopted a small area to keep potato-free, that would help. We'd love to have classrooms adopt a portion, or organizations."

Finn says about 20 acres of the park are infested with exotic invasive plants. And while there's at least one annual air potato pick to remove those from the ground, that's not enough to save the woods.

"Look at an aerial view of Dunedin and you will see houses and parking lots and then you see Hammock Park," said Finn. "This huge beautiful green area in the city and it's really impressive."

. On the Web

Hammock Park Adoption Program

Go to www.hammockpark.org/membership/adopt_form.html

Volunteers battle invasive air potatoes at Dunedin's Hammock Park 07/30/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 30, 2010 8:59pm]

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