Florida’s climate supports the growth of all varieties of plants, from native to exotic species. But University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences experts have long worked to educate the public on identifying and controlling invasive plants, which displace native species and threaten the state’s native biodiversity.
One recent UF/IFAS project targeting three invasive species along the Gulf Coast is set to be honored June 19 with a first-place award in the International Master Gardener Committee’s “innovative project” category.
The UF/IFAS Extension Nature Coast Master Gardeners program, a group of trained volunteers serving Levy, Dixie and Gilchrist counties, educated their communities and organized removal days of the invasive Brazilian peppertree, water lettuce and air potato vine as part of the “Enhancing Natives in the Nature Coast” project.
“It all comes down to how we can be good stewards of our environment,” said Barbara Edmonds, Master Gardener coordinator based out of UF/IFAS Extension Levy County. “Our Master Gardeners program focuses on Florida-Friendly Landscaping principles, and at the core of that is ensuring the right plant is in the right place.”
The project, which previously earned an Outstanding Master Gardener Team award in 2017, centered around three species intruding upon areas along the Gulf Coast that many enjoy recreationally:
- Cedar Key Island and Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge had an abundance of Brazilian peppertree (Schinus terebinthifolia)
- Sue’s Sink, an exit point for cave divers at Manatee Springs State Park, was filled with water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes)
- Yankeetown, farther south in Levy County, needed help controlling its air potato vine (Dioscorea bulbifera) population.
Master Gardener volunteers served in key leadership positions, Edmonds said, fostering cooperation and collaboration between federal, state and local government officials, civic groups and residents.
The removal processes used recommended UF/IFAS control practices based on the plant and the site, successfully removing from their respective targeted areas approximately 40% of Brazilian peppertree, 90% of water lettuce and 80% of air potato vines present.
Edmonds also noted the project’s importance beyond the targeted areas.
“From a water standpoint, the outcome of this project helps to preserve our natural resources and restore some of those areas,” she said. “Sue’s Sink is fed by the aquifer, for example, and it was important that our process to remove the water lettuce did not use herbicides.”
The project will continue, Edmonds added, with regular checkups on the areas and scheduled removal days as deemed necessary. Its mission will also be furthered through continuing to educate the community about invasive plant species identification and control.
“I hope this project gives the general public more awareness of non-native invasive species that outcompete our native species for resources, and teaches them about mechanical, chemical and, in some cases, biological strategies for control,” Edmonds said. “We’d like for the public to look around their environment and know that their local Extension office is a resource to help them with any landscape-related question.”
The International Master Gardener Committee’s Search for Excellence program recognizes seven categories of Extension Master Gardener volunteer work throughout the United States, Canada, and South Korea. This is UF/IFAS Extension Nature Coast Master Gardeners’ first application and first recognition.
UF/IFAS Sumter County Master Gardeners also earned a third-place recognition in the demonstration gardens category.