The Air Potato, Dioscorea bulbifera, is a plant in the Yam Family (Dioscoreaceae) not a true potato (Family Solanaceae). The Air Potato is a native of Asia, that has made its way to North America. In Africa, the Air Potato may be used for food. In Florida, the Air Potato has gone wild and produces tubers that are bitter and even poisonous. Florida vines can grow 8 inches (0.2 meters) per day. The vines will climb trees and produce dense foliage that shades other native plants.
The State of Florida classifies Air Potato as a “Noxious Weed” and works on eliminating the plant and controlling its spread. The primary means of control is pulling the vines by hand. However, the tubers can still survive underground and send up new shoots. The USDA Invasive Plant Research Laboratory has been working on other solutions. One solution is biological control. Researchers explore the native habitat of the invasive plant and identify the factors that keep the population under control in its native area.In the case of Air Potato, The Air Potato Leaf Beetle, Lilioceris cheni, feeds on the leaves of Air Potato and limits the growth of the plant. One worry about any insect intentionally imported for biological control is, “Will this insect only eat the weed? Is it possible that the insect might damage important crop plants?” These questions are thoroughly considered before a foreign species is released. Lilioceris cheni, was studied for many years and feeds only on Air Potato. It cannot survive much further north than Florida. Based on extensive studies, the USDA concluded that the risk of Lilioceris cheni, becoming a pest was low.
To educate the public about the USDA efforts and the importance of biological control, local school children were invited to participate in the release of these beetles at the Long Key Nature Center. How effective will the beetles be at limiting the Air Potato Problem? That test is now underway.