Species relocation and displacement has gotten more and more serious over the last few centuries, especially since the invention of intercontinental sailing ships and airplanes. Environmental problems like water and air pollution are within our realm of technical abilities to address but it is not quite as easy when it comes to mankind’s rearrangement of species all over the planet. Now, aggressive new invaders that are not going away are suddenly crowding out native species that had slowly evolved in-place.
This month’s invasive species is the Air Potato (Dioscorea bulbifera), a starchy tuber or yam that grows from a vine that can get to be seventy feet long, tall enough to get to the top of our tallest tress. It has large, shiny valentine-shaped leaves and dangles a little brown potato used for making even more potato vines. The plant originated in tropical Africa and Asia where it is used by people for food and folk medicine. Fortunately, none are known to be at Camp Salmen but they’ve been seen around town. People gladly grow them in their yard because they are quick and pretty but they can take over the neighborhood by using their shady leaves to steal the sunlight and turn living shrubs and trees into dead trellises, similar to what Kudzu does. Like all obnoxious plants they are hard to eradicate.
An expedition of naturalists recently went to Grand Isle in a desperate effort to try to keep Air Potato vines from taking over the rare and beautiful natural oak forest in the middle of the island. I’m surprised the Cajuns down there haven’t come up with some way to cook these things and take care of the problem. Alas, the potato from the variety growing here is considered by some to be toxic and bitter (it’s full of diosgenin, a steroid used in the manufacture of birth-control pills). However another source states that, despite their slimy texture, they need only to be diced, rinsed in water, and cooked to make them safe. The Japanese use them in their pancakes and in other dishes. For a number of principled reasons I’ll stick with the Idaho varieties of potato.
The gorgeous, heart-shaped, shiny, shade producing leaves of the air potato.