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Invasive species threatens Lake Mills Park

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Invasive rosary pea plants were recently discovered in Chuluota’s Lake Mills Park, which could make the park less accessible to the community and cause a decrease in native plant and animal populations if left unchecked.

The 50-acre park, called “one of Seminole County’s prettiest” by FloridaHikes.com, boasts a campground, playground and access to Lake Mills.

Characterized by their bright red seeds with a black tip, rosary pea plants originate in Southeast Asia, but were introduced into South Florida in the 1900s and have continued to spread across the state. Rosary peas are considered a Category 1 invasive species by the Florida Invasive Species Council, meaning that they have demonstrated significant ecological damage toward plant communities.

It is possible that the pea plants will take over the park’s shrubbery and cause overgrowth, thus making it very difficult for community members to visit and enjoy the park, Seminole County Education, Restoration and Volunteer (SERV) Program Coordinator Elizabeth Stephens said.

“There would be not only ecological problems, but also problems with ecotourism and people enjoying the park,” Stephens said. “The beauty of the area would be lost to a certain extent.”

To help combat this issue, Stephens organized a volunteer event to remove rosary pea plants from the Lake Mills area on May 28. Nearly 20 volunteers attended, both from SERV and the community.

Many choosing to wear gloves and hats to avoid direct contact with the plants, the team filled 18 garbage bags with removed plants. SERV Site Captain and University of Central Florida student Jayleen Moya said it is the community’s responsibility to care for the environment when issues like this arise.

“[The environment] is as important to me as it should be to everyone,” Moya said. “As much as it gives to us, we should give back to it.”

 

Impacts on the environment

In Lake Mills Park, the plants and seeds were found in trees, shrubbery and on the ground. The plants could potentially remove natural habitats that are necessary for wildlife, including endangered habitats.

For instance, some species of milkweed are threatened in Seminole County, and invasive plants could cause further harm to them, Seminole County Natural Resources Program Coordinator Allegra Buyer said. Monarch butterflies lay eggs on milkweed, so its decline would affect butterfly populations. Although rosary peas are unlikely to have an impact on milkweed specifically, they could prove detrimental to other natural habitats.

Air potatoes are another Category 1 invasive species that has plagued Florida for decades. The species took over native plants and vines, growing up to eight inches per day. They caused important natural habitats, such as pinelands, to decay. A similar trend could be seen with rosary pea plants.

“It takes years sometimes to get particular invasive species under control,” Stephens said. “A lot of times, when they get into a new spot, it’s really hard to get rid of them.”

On top of that, the rosary pea plant seeds are toxic and could hurt animals who consume them, including humans. Not many animals or humans have been impacted, but acting now is the best way to prevent significant harm, Buyer said.

“It’s toxic to people, and that’s part of the reason we are removing it,” she said.

How to help

Even though a good amount of the species was removed from the park, SERV plans to organize follow-up events to continue removing the rosary pea plants, which may be a slow process. Often, removal alone cannot fully rid the species. Air potatoes were not completely removed from the ecosystem until a control insect was introduced that ate the species. Buyer hopes that a similar insect can be introduced to control rosary peas, but the process of finding a suitable species could take 10 to 20 years.

“We’re doing the right thing by trying to stop it now,” Buyer said. “It’s really the best we can do.”

Those interested in volunteering with SERV can email serv@seminolecountyfl.gov for information on removal events, plantings and restorations, or visit Eventbrite to register for posted opportunities.

Beyond volunteering, there are a number of ways to help protect the environment. Buyer recommends researching different kinds of plants and their effect on the environment prior to gardening, as some plants on the market may be invasive. Additionally, aiming gutters toward grass instead of driveways or roads can prevent the spread of litter into bodies of water where aquatic species live.

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