Air potato (Dioscorea bulbifera)

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Air potato (Dioscorea bulbifera) is a perennial vine native to Asia and Africa. The vine is an invasive species in parts of the southeastern U.S. By climbing up vertical surfaces, air potato chokes other vegetation, competes for light, and can cause structural damage.

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Air potato grows best in warm climates and is beginning to spread in Louisiana. The majority of reported infestations occur in the southernmost regions of the state.

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Air potato (left) is a member of the yam family, Dioscoreaceae. Air potato is identified by its heart-shaped leaves with arching veins that radiate from the leaf center. The leaves can be confused with morning glory (right), which is in the plant family Convolvulaceae. Some species of morning glory are also invasive, with a similar growth habit and leaf shape to air potato.

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Air potato gets its name from the aerial bulbils, or “potatoes”, that are produced in leaf axils. Like true potatoes, bulbils can sprout leaves and roots, and then produce new plants vegetatively. Bulbil size can range from as small as a marble to as large as a softball. Bulbils are produced in late summer to fall and drop to the ground from fall through winter as the vines senesce.

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Air potato spreads primarily by vegetative reproduction, and rarely flowers in temperate climates. However, flowering has been observed in some infestations in Florida (Photo by W. A. Overholt).

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Small infestations of air potato can be removed mechanically by hand, and this is often a community effort. Bulbils are collected and placed in a central location where they can be doused with an herbicide to reduce new growth. Herbicides can be effective on aboveground growth, but may not kill underground tubers which can serve as points of regrowth (Photo by Jean Landry).

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In spring, new vines grow from dropped bulbils and out of underground tubers. Spring growth can be vigorous and must be managed before vines get out of hand. Early action to manage new growth can limit the spread of infestations.

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Biological control

Lilioceris cheni, also known as the air potato leaf beetle, is a newly released herbivore that feeds on air potato. The beetle causes rapid skeletonization of leaves and early vine senescence. Feeding by adults and larvae reduces the plant’s nutrient reserves, slowing its rate of growth over time.

For more information on air potato, see the LSU AgCenter Bug Biz.

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