It’s a funny sounding name but this plant called the “Air Potato” can cause severe environmental problems. The crop was brought from Africa and Asia to Florida in 1905 to be evaluated as a crop but the taste is not as tasty as the regular potato. They are also somewhat bitter and can be potentially poisonous.
Another drawback to the plant that researchers noticed was that it was quick to spread. Plants taken out of their natural habitat often become invasive in a new environment. Scientists and horticulturalists warned the government of this possible problem and to limit its use and growth in America.
But the plant had beautiful heart shapes leaves and avid gardeners seeking unusual plants wanted it, so it started appearing in plant shops.
The plant started out as a houseplant but it soon moved into gardens, particularly in the warmer southern climates. The plant soon escaped the gardens and entered the wild lands where it would overtake the pine trees often growing as tall as 60 foot. The Florida Hammocks seem to be the worst hit by the Air Potato. It is literally destroying these valuable hardwood trees.
Because of its fast growth and spreading habit it is displacing native species and is almost impossible to destroy.
The Air Potato produces little warty potato-like tubers (called bulbils) on vining stems. The vine will climb into shrubs and trees slowly overtaking them. The vines block the sunlight from the plants and trees, which they need to survive and they weaken, get diseased and slowly die.
Once the Air Potato becomes established in the wild, it begins producing countless little bulbils on its stems. The bulbil can be as small as your fingernail but will sprout and result in a new plant. These bulbils can float and travel long distances. Hawaii and Florida have been plagues with the problem for a long time but the plant is now spreading along the Gulf Coast and is showing up in other areas too.
Air potato plants are illegal in Florida, Alabama and will be illegal in more states soon. They are on the invasive list and conservation and environmental agencies urgently request that you do not grow this plant. One careless gardener can create a problem in their backyard for years to come.
If you live in an area plagued with Air Potatoes call your conservation agency if you find the plants growing near you. Sprays can combat the problem and digging up and removing the bulbils will help keep the plant from spreading and causing more damage.
Unusual plants, particularly with funny names are fun to grow in your garden but you need to know their background and history and check to see if they are on the invasive plant list.