Air Potato Vine – The highly spreadable, not so edible, invasive

air-potatoes

Yams. Just that single word conjures up images of delectable dishes featuring the root crop for which Opelousas, Louisiana, is so well known. But don’t be fooled. What you thought all these years were yams are really not yams at all; they’re sweet potatoes. 

There is, however, one type of yam abundant in Louisiana with no similarity to the sweet potato: Dioscorea bulbifera, a native of Africa and a member of the yam family. The common name for this invasive plant is the air potato or air potato vine.  

Plant experts believe that the first air potato plant introduced to America was sent to a botanist in Orlando, Florida, in 1905 to be considered as a desirable ornamental and possible food crop. That edible species, Dioscorea alata, should not be confused with the inedible species of air potato vine that grows wild across Louisiana’s native bottomland hardwoods and wetlands and is easily identifiable by the big, heart-shaped leaves that sit opposite one another along the vine. The vines grow over bushes and up trees, reaching heights of seventy feet.  

In June through September, Dioscorea bulbifera puts out little balls along its vines that greatly resemble small potatoes, which actually aren’t potatoes at all; rather, they are called bulbils. It is from these bulbils that the plants so readily spread. In the fall, as the vine dies back, the bulbils drop to the ground, where they sprout new vines in spring. 

I first discovered this plant on my three acres in the marsh while walking the overgrown back section with my youngest son. We came upon these funny-looking potatoes and immediately dubbed them “dinosaur eggs.” By the following summer, the vines had blocked the sunlight from all the other plants below, choking out the native flora. Without using harmful herbicides, the best way to manage the plant’s growth is to remove the potatoes (bulbils). I had a brilliant idea. Handing each of my three sons a bucket, I offered them twenty-five cents for every “dinosaur egg” they brought me. It was a good investment; the vines are no longer a problem.  

More recently, a bumper crop of air potato vines threatens to overtake the cheniere, or oak grove, on Grand Isle, a haven for migratory songbirds in the spring and a magnet for birdwatchers from across the country. The cheniere not only offers prime habitat for birds, it also offers prime growing conditions for the vines, which spiral up into the oaks, spread out into mats, and threaten native plant species.  

Terrebonne Bird Club members

Terrebonne Bird Club members

In years past, the Nature Conservancy and local schools employed the same organic eradication technique that my sons and I used, collecting and destroying the bulbils. For the past few years, multiple groups, including members of Houma’s Terrebonne Bird Club, have also taken part in eradication programs. Although their combined efforts have resulted in the collection of several thousand pounds of bulbils, the vines continue to threaten the cheniere.

If you would like to help in this eradication effort, plan a day trip to Grand Isle this month in advance of the spring bird migration, which typically begins in April. You are encouraged to call the Grand Isle Nature Conservancy (985-787-3599) for more information about where to park, what to bring, and how to dispose of the air potatoes properly once they’ve been collected. You will be doing a great service to the chenier and the birds. You would also be helping to get things ready for the Grand Isle Migratory Bird Fest.

Happy Spring!  (Well, so I’m rushing it a wee bit!)

BW

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Comments

Air Potato Vine – The highly spreadable, not so edible, invasive — 6 Comments

  1. What an odd plant! Is it at all edible for animals? Be good if there was some use for it. It’s beginnings sound much like Kudzu (aka “The Foot A Day Vine”) and other invasive species that were brought here for things like “ornamentation”…not so ornamental when it swallows a whole building!

  2. I have a friend in the Texas Hill County who has this growing up a trellis near her front door. The leaves are beautiful, and the “potatoes” unusual. They always make me think of kiwi fruit. In her situation, of course, she can keep it under control, and use it for shade where she wants it. But you’d better believe she keeps an eye on it!

    I don’t so much dig festivals like the one you linked. I’d much rather visit on “just a day” when there aren’t so many people around. But it did occur to me that the Kenny Hill sculpture garden, a trip to Grand Isle, and a little general photography could be knit together in a single visit. Can you hear my brain a-ticking? Maybe even a trip to the swamp… I bit the bullet, hard, and now have a 70-300mm lens for my camera. I took it out for a test run last Sunday, and really was happy. I need to get shooting.

    When do the wild irises bloom? Do you have them in your area? I’ve seen wonderful photos from Lake Verret. I’m getting twitchy to see some things!

    • I’m still a little off kilter, Linda, so let’s see if I can put a cohesive thought down in print. I see your brain’s a-tickling, and what a great way to try out your lens. You’d need two days to do swamp tour, Grand Isle, and Sculpture garden. GI is a one day trip if you want to see everything scenic, and swamp tour and sculpture garden on one day–half day each. About the irises . . the weather has been so warm, that it could be as soon as a week or two. I’ll scan the ones on the bayou side when I’m well enough to drive to town and will try to remember to let you know. It would take two days to do what you want to do. GI takes a day, and then a day for the garden and swamp tour. After a trip like that, I’d love to have you as a guest blogger, reflecting on your impressions, etc. of your trip and the areas we visit.

  3. What a shame they are not edible. I could envision a church mission group harvesting the potatoes for a local food pantry.
    Other than shade, Can the plant be used for another purpose?

    • Some claim that this species is edible when prepared a certain way, mostly in developing countries. However, many folks have sampled it and had to go to the hospital. They are quite toxic, especially when consumed raw. So, I’d say no.

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