Air potato ( Dioscorea bulbifera ) is a vine in the true yam family native to Africa, south Asia, and northern Australia. It was introduced to the United States via the slave trade and reached Florida in 1905. Air potato is an aggressive vine that can quickly engulf the vegetation beneath it and, once established, is extremely difficult to control.
It is listed as a Category I noxious weed by the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council. Biology and Identification Air potato is a twining, herbaceous vine that sprouts from underground or above-ground tubers. Vines can grow quite long, up to 70 feet in length, and twine counterclockwise. Leaves can be up to 8 inches long and are heart-shaped, basally-lobed, and alternately-arranged along the stalks.
Aerial tubers form in the leaf axils. Tubers are rounded with a smooth surface and reach up to 5 inches in length. Flowering is rare, and no male flowers or fruits have been observed in Florida. Most new plants sprout from aerial tubers. Habitat Air potato is found in a variety of habitats, but prefers hardwood forests. It is rarely found along edges of pinelands and avoids marine areas due to salt intolerance. Threats of Invasion Dense masses of air potato outcompete native plants and prevent native plant seeds from germinating.
Air potato is an aggressive vine that grows quickly and can suffocate the canopy and can drastically reduce light penetration to the forest floor, eliminating the understory. The increase in biomass due to dense masses of air potato also provides a fuel ladder that increases vulnerability of the forest canopy to fire, possibly increasing fire severity and compromising safety of prescribed burns.
It’s difficult to control due to spread by aerial tubers. Control Mechanical removal combined with herbicide application can be effective. Hand pulling vines can prevent aerial tuber production.
How did air potatoes get to the US?
History – Although it’s native to Asia, the air potato was introduced to the U.S. on a shipment from Africa. First introduced through Florida in 1905, the air potato has been added to the Florida noxious weeds list as of 1999.
Why did the air potato invade Florida?
The air potato beetle, Lilioceris cheni, is a biological control agent of the air potato vine, Dioscorea bulbifera, one of the most aggressive invasive weeds in the southeastern United States. (Dale Halbritter, D4349-1) The plot could have come from Hollywood — an insidious alien invader threatens to overrun the land, but intrepid scientists discover a secret weapon in the far-off, exotic land of Nepal and bring the pestilence to heel.
- But this is not fiction; it’s true.
- The air potato plant ( Dioscorea bulbifera ) is an exotic vine from Asia that was introduced to Florida about 115 years ago to make medicine.
- After escaping from the lab, it multiplied and smothered native plant communities in all of Florida’s 67 counties.
- It spread beyond to large swaths of land in the southeastern United States.
The weed got its name from the potato-like “aerial bulbils” it produces. While the bulbils do not produce seeds, they do sprout new vines. All attempts to manage the air potato – mechanical, chemical, or physically gathering the bulbils — were unsuccessful; they were either too labor intensive and costly or caused collateral damage to native and endangered species.
- According to Min Rayamajhi, a plant pathologist at the Agricultural Research Service’s (ARS) Invasive Plant Research Laboratory (IPRL) in Fort Lauderdale, FL, the vines return every season, repeating the growth cycle and expanding the invasion at a rate of about 6 inches per day.
- Rayamajhi and retired ARS scientist Bob Pemberton traveled to Nepal and accidentally discovered the air potato beetle.
The pair had been in Nepal to survey natural enemies of other weeds when they unexpectedly ran into the air potato beetle, an insect that feeds on air potato leaves. The beetles ( Lilioceris cheni ), red from Nepal and orange from China, are rather large, nearly one-half inch long.
The scientists brought the beetles back to Florida, where Pemberton tested the beetles for host specificity during a 5-year period in the IPRL quarantine facility. The beetles had opportunities to feed on plants of economic and ecological importance, but were found to be highly host-specific, meaning they feed and multiply only on foliage of the air potato vine.
Based on these findings, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service issued a permit for release in the U.S. ARS plant pathologist Min Rayamajhi examines air potato vines, Dioscorea bulbifera, damaged by adult and larval individuals of air potato beetle, Lilioceris cheni, at the outdoor nursery of the Invasive Plant Research Laboratory in Fort Lauderdale, FL.
Is air potato invasive in Florida?
Species Overview – Native to : Tropical Asia Air potato was first introduced to the Americas from Africa and was introduced into Florida in 1905. Due to its ability to displace native species and disrupt natural processes such as fire and water flow, air potato has been listed as one of Florida’s most invasive plant species since 1993, and was placed on the Florida Noxious Weed List by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in 1999.
Do air potatoes grow in Florida?
What is an Air Potato? – Air potatoes are members of the yam family and native to Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Air potatoes can now be found throughout Florida as well as in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. Air potato was added to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Noxious Weed List in 1999.
Are Florida Air potatoes edible?
1: They’re not potatoes. – Surprise, right? Despite the name, they’re not related to white potatoes ( Solanum tuberosum ), which is in the nightshade family (Solanaceae). Air potatoes are a member of the yam family (Dioscoreaceae). In Florida you still don’t want to eat them.
Do air potatoes taste good?
Description/Taste – Air potato bulbils are medium to large in size and are oblong and irregularly shaped, averaging fifteen centimeters in length. The skin ranges from brown, rough, and spotted with warts to tan or light grey and smooth. The flesh is firm, starchy, slimy, and a beige-orange.
Air potatoes have a mild, earthy, and sometimes bitter flavor. They grow on an herbaceous twining vine, meaning it uses other vegetation to cling to and support its weight. Twinning in a counterclockwise direction, these vines have heart-shaped, emerald green leaves that appear in an alternating pattern on the stems.
The bulbils grow in the air and hang down from the vine or they can also be found growing underground in the dirt.
Why is the air potato harmful?
Dioscorea, a Name to Remember – Introductions begin with names. The genus and family name of the air potato come from the ancient Greek physician Dioscorides. Pedanius Dioscorides wrote De Materia Medica, which has influenced every herbal since the first century AD.
- What he preached is somewhat of a lost connection with understanding a plant in every season of its growth.
- Dioscorides wrote, “For he who is only present at the budding of the herb cannot know it when it is full-grown, nor can he who hath examined a full-grown herb, recognise it when it has only just appeared above ground.” De Materia Medica describes not only characteristics of each plant he studied, but also their medicinal qualities and uses.
This work was so important that it was translated into at least seven languages and was the best-known pharmaceutical handbook for 16 centuries. Dioscorides didn’t describe the air potato, which was discovered and named after his lifetime, but the entire family of yams was named for him.
If he had found this “cheeky yam,” as some call it, he would have provided the folk remedies in use at the time, including those for treating dysentery, diarrhea, syphilis, sores and tumors. In India and China, the air potato is an important and much-studied therapeutic plant, with many different cultivars used in traditional medicine.
In the tropics, varieties have been cultivated as a food crop for centuries. Here in the U.S., Dioscorea bulbifera was included in a U.S. Department of Agriculture publication on alternative cash crops in 1993, taking into consideration the toxicity of the plant as well as its edibility.
The air potato might be a type of wild yam, but that doesn’t mean you can eat the tubers of the wild, uncultivated plant. They contain steroidal saponins, powerful constituents that are used to synthesize cortisone and human sex hormones in laboratories. Eaten raw or even cooked, the tubers could be poisonous.
There is a native North American wild yam with much lower saponins, Dioscorea villosa, which is at risk of becoming endangered because of overharvesting, especially in Appalachia. Shutterstock
How is the air potato harmful?
Pros and Cons of Air Potato – Air potato is extremely toxic and should not be consumed. It can grow very quickly (up to 8 inches per day). Typically, it climbs to the tops of trees and has a tendency to block the sunlight reaching native plants and suffocate them.
What is air potato good for?
Uses – Air potato has been used as a folk remedy to treat conjunctivitis, diarrhoea, and dysentery, among other ailments.D. bulbifera is highly important to the Tiwi people of Australia, who use it in an important ceremony called kulama, During the ceremony, the tubers are ritually cooked, and eaten on the third day.
What is the origin of the air potato?
Native to tropical Asia, the Air Potato thrives in Florida due to the warm climate – it can grow 8 inches a day! These plants grow thick and block sunlight to other plants, and so must be removed and destroyed to prevent native habitat destruction.