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Friday, June 21, 2024

Armed with work gloves and orange plastic buckets, about 1,400 volunteers set out in the rain Saturday morning to protect their city from invasion.

The volunteers came for the ninth annual Great Air Potato Roundup to stomp out the air potato, an exotic plant that can smother native flora.

The potatoes, which are native to tropical Asia, grow on vines that can measure up to 60 feet and choke out trees, according to UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Science. If left alone, the potatoes fall off the vine and sprout new plants.

The roundup not only helps manage the area's potato problem, but also educates volunteers, said Sally Wazny, program coordinator for Nature Operations, the city organization that holds the event.

Registered volunteers were assigned to 33 wooded sites around Gainesville to hunt for the small, gray plants.

Courtney Hooker, who graduated from UF in wildlife ecology and conservation last spring, picked potatoes in the woods behind J.J. Finley Elementary School.

"Typically it's the most messy and tangled places where they are," she said.

For Katrina Lagos and Sarah Hill, seventh-graders at Queen of Peace Catholic Academy, the search was the best part.

"It's like a scavenger hunt," Lagos said.

After two hours of picking, volunteers gathered at Morningside Nature Center for free food, T-shirts, music and drawings and to listen to a speech by Jim Weimer, a biologist from Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. Weimer urged against growing invasive plants, which he said people often find beautiful.

"They say, 'Oh, Jim, it has such beautiful red berries in the winter,'" he said. "And that's true, but it's not the point."

Nature Operations also gave out prizes for the largest and weirdest air potatoes - small papier-mâché trophies that looked like angry potatoes.

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The prize for the biggest potato went to Annie Freedman, 6, who picked one a little larger than a softball.

At least four other volunteers even did some vigilante picking, showing up at the celebration to turn in carloads of potatoes, said Katherine Edison, nature assistant for Nature Operations.

"They said 'I couldn't make it out today, but I know where there's potatoes, and I picked them on my own,'" Edison said.

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