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The Dirt on Air Potato

With the exception of the Kudzu Vine, I have never seen a more aggressive and dangerous weed in Florida.” --Henry Nehrling, 1944

Where did it come from?

Air potato is a member of the yam family and native to Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. It has been speculated that the plant was brought into the Americas with slave ships from Africa. Around 1905, it was sent to Florida by the USDA for testing as a medicinal plant and can now be found throughout Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.

Why is it a problem?

Air potato is a versatile plant that invades a variety of habitats, including pinelands and natural area hammocks. It can quickly engulf native vegetation in natural areas, climbing high into mature tree canopies. The vines produce many bulbils, allowing the plant to spread quickly. New plants can sprout even from very small bulbils and underground tubers making it extremely difficult to eliminate. It is listed as Florida Noxious Weed and a Category I Florida Exotic Pest Plant .

What does it look like?

Air potato is a vigorously twining herbacious vine which sprouts from underground or aerial tubers, called bulbils. Its stems can grow 60 to 70 feet in length. It is easily recognized by its large, heart shaped leaves. The bulbils can be the size of small marbles or as large as softballs. In Florida, bulbil texture and color are variable. Some bulbils are warty while others are smooth, and color can range from a light tan to a dark coffee color.

How does it spread?

Because air potato rarely flowers in Florida, it is not known to reproduce sexually. The plant uses aerial tubers to reproduce asexually. Bulbils grow along the vines and are found on plants during the fall and winter. The bulbils drop from the vines in winter (December to February) and sprout in spring. Air potato can grow extremely quickly, roughly 8 inches per day. A single air potato vine may produce more than a thousand bulbils.

Is it edible?

No! Although air potato is a member of the yam family, uncultivated species—such as those found in Florida— are generally bitter and may even be poisonous.

How can I help?

You can help protect Sanibel’s natural areas by removing air potato and other invasive exotic plants from around your home. Locating and removing bulbils is easiest during the winter months—when plants are dormant—because air potato and other vegetation are not as dense. Air potato vines growing up into trees or mixed in with desirable plants, should be cut or pulled by hand. Remove as many bulbils as possible, as those left behind will produce new vines. Dispose of all parts of the air potato plant—including the bulbils—by methods that will prevent the vines from spreading to new areas. Burning is the best method, so dispose of plants with your household garbage, not your yard waste. Bulbils can also be killed by storing them in a freezer overnight. Or simply participate in the Sanibel Air Potato Exchange Day and let the City take care of them for you!