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Volunteers weed out invasive vine

Published: Sunday, June 7, 2009

Updated: Sunday, June 7, 2009 18:06


Ashley Inguanta

Volunteers trickled into the arboretum office Saturday morning, where they were given the day's task: Find and weed out the skunk vine in the first Invasive Plant Dig Out held by the Central Florida Invasive Species Working Group.

About 20 arboretum employees, volunteers and Seminole County environmental officials took two hours out of their Saturday morning in the stifling Florida wetland humidity to rip out more than an acre's worth of the vine.  Volunteers donned gardening gloves and wielded branch clippers, machetes, rakes and pitchforks in the effort.

The UCF Environmental Initiative's cypress dome, at the corner of Gemini Boulevard and North Orion Boulevard is a lush, five-acre wetland. Broad-leaved vines, some as thick as a roll of quarters, stretch across the native cypress trees, forming a canopy and underbrush.

The vines are of a non-native, invasive species of plant called skunk vine, a predatory plant that, if left unchecked, will strangle the native cypress and other plant life out of its habitat.

"This is a huge, important problem," Sherry Williams, who is part of the Seminole County steering committee, said. "Most people are saying, ‘Well, why should I care?' because they live in a nice subdivision and don't have a lot of contact with the native Florida wetlands.

"But in a lot of these neighborhoods, you've got people planting these invasive species, and they do spread. The truth is that millions of your taxpayer dollars are going toward combating these invasive plants."

On Saturday, the Central Florida Invasive Species Working Group, called on volunteers to do just that.

The Central Florida Invasive Species Working Group is a partnership between Orange County and Seminole County, and a member of a larger, statewide conglomeration of municipal, state and federal agencies called the Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area. CISMA includes the University of Florida, the Nature Conservancy, the St. Johns River Water Management District and Valencia Community College.

"I'm thrilled to be out here giving back to the community," Elizabeth Solis, UCF modern language professor and volunteer, said. "I've done some work with the organic garden and things like that, but this is my first time ever making it out to this area. I wasn't aware that this was such a problem, but I'm glad we are dealing with it like we should."

Volunteers fanned out into the cypress dome, the clinking of metal blades audible from across the street, emerging now and then with arms and 50-gallon trash bags full of bundles of the skunk vine.   

They were followed up quickly by arboretum employees with bottles of a nonspecific white herbicide used to target broad-leaved vines, to prevent the vines from returning.

As the pile of foliage accumulated outside the dome, it was hauled off in a white pickup truck to the back of the arboretum's protected reserve, where it was dumped in a five-acre plot of land specifically for the university's organic waste.

It took two truckloads, piled high and stomped down by volunteers in the bed of the truck, to handle the debris. And still, by the end of the day, the volunteers had not tackled one-quarter of the total infestation.

Invasive plant species are opportunistic, using disturbances in the natural environment, such as construction or deforestation, as a chance to enter the weakened ecosystem and take root.

"In this case, the construction of Gemini [Boulevard] was the disturbance that originally gave invasive species their opportunity," Jennifer Pudwell, UCF Arboretum assistant land manager, said. "Eventually, seeds and spores spread to the area and just took over. We are now trying to just keep them under control."

Since that time, the cypress dome has been overrun with the vine, a problem that has needed constant attention. It is similar to kudzu, a vine in the Appalachian Mountains, which can sweep literally every square inch of the side of a mountain, from the forest floor to the tops of trees.

To avoid an infestation of that magnitude, the UCF Environmental Initiative in the coming months plans to host additional dig outs.

They report more than 10 invasive species on campus, ranging from small, isolated incidents to full-blown, widespread infestations such as the skunk vine, and they anticipate having their hands full well into the future.

"Once we are finished with [the skunk vine]," Orlando Genao, Environmental Initiative Line Manager, said, "we are going to move on to an invasive species of grass, where we will have to collect the seed heads and pull out the grass. And the list just goes on from there."

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