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Smelly Vine Invades Central Florida

May 19, 1998

BROOKSVILLE, Fla. (AP) _ Skunk vine, stink vine, sewer vine _ by any name, this plant is hardly sweet.

The smelly, tough, pesky Asian vine, most commonly known as skunk vine, has invaded at least 18 Florida counties, overgrowing and smothering native underbrush and even killing trees.

The spread of skunk vine prompted the Southwest Florida Water Management District to start a $110,000, two-year study of how to control the exotic Asian import.

``The district has 260,000 acres from Marion to Manatee, and most of it from Hillsborough north has skunk vine,″ said Tony Richards, senior land management specialist for the district. ``We have a hard time pinning down how many acres, but we know it is on all our property.″

The aggressive vine crowds out native plants, covering and killing them. It also climbs bushes and trees, growing heavy enough to break branches and kill the plants.

``We seem to be the epicenter for skunk vine. It’s the worst exotic species we have on district land,″ Richards said.

Areas around the upper Hillsborough River have dense pads of skunk vine covering 20 acres and smothering all native vegetation, he said.

When native plants disappear, so do food and cover for native animals.

And then there’s the highly unpleasant aroma.

``Oh, it stinks,″ said Dorothy Brazis, a University of Florida graduate student who is studying the plant. ``It gets on everything and clings to your clothes.″

When disturbed, the plant releases an enzyme, either for protection or to lure insects to pollinate its flowers. Brazis said researchers don’t know which.

If the odor is defensive, it works. Very little dines on such a smelly offering.

And although taxpayers are paying more than $100,000 to find a way to evict it, the pest is an invited guest, brought to Hernando County in 1897 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, possibly to see if it was suitable as a fiber crop.

Since then, it has spread from the Gulf to the Atlantic through Central Florida.

The district study will look at the best short-term way to control it, though options are limited.

Spraying it endangers the plants the vines are threatening.

Pulling it by hand requires a lot of labor with limited results because its woody runners break off to produce more. Even a small bit of skunk vine left in the ground will sprout again.

The second part of the study will determine if there is a selective biological control in the plant’s native Asia, where it does not conquer huge areas.

If there is a biological control such as an insect, it will take five to 10 years of study to make sure scientists don’t replace one problem with another.

``It’s just a nasty beast to control,″ Richards said.

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