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Lara Colley ENVIRONMENTALIST, educator, conservationist

Photo at National Areas Teaching Laboratory (NATL) by, Cristina Carriz

Lara Colley is the Education Coordinator for the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Florida Invasive Species Education Initiative (UF/IFAS IPEI). She also develops, evaluates and implements education outreach materials and programs for the UF/IFAS Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants (CAIP). Colley is a fifth generation Floridian who grew up spending time in the woods.

Her hobbies growing up included exploring rivers, state parks and other natural areas with her dad. Outdoor activities led her to her passion for the environment and wanting to protect it, while helping others appreciate what she does as well. She decided to get a bachelor’s degree from UF in natural resource conservation.

Following her bachelor’s degree, she studied under Dr. Martha Monroe to earn her master’s degree studying forest resources and conservation. During this time, she also completed a certificate in environmental education. Once school was finished, she became a park ranger at Sweetwater Wetlands Park, which eventually led her to the position she is in now at UF/IFAS IPEI.

Colley enjoys creating resources and educating the public about why invasive plants present challenges to Florida. She helps PK-12 teachers learn about invasive and aquatic plants, so they may pass the knowledge on to their students. In her current role, she looks into the best ways to get information out to the general public and works with UF/IFAS Extension groups such as Florida 4-H as well.

Kayaks and paddles on the bank of a lake at 4-H Camp Ocala by, Lyon Duong.

Colley defines native plants as ones that have evolved here. She describes them as have always been here, which has allowed the plants to adapt with the controls in place. This means that organisms, insects, animals that eat those plants native plants without harm done.

Native plants can also be referred to as kept in balance by the seasons and surrounding environment. Know that the definition of native plants is understood, it makes understanding invasive plants easier. Invasive species are what Colley helps educate others on.

UF Community Farm Student Garden by, Amy Stuart.

According to Colley, invasive plants are ones that are introduced by being brought to a new location. What happens when bringing a new plant in, it does not have the same controlled factors to balance it out.

“Invasiveness is defined by a plant that is introduced to a new location, grows aggressively, and is resilient. It has multiple modes of reproduction and basically crowds out native plants,” said Colley.

UF Lake Alice with overgrowth of plants covering the water by Josh Wickham.

Since Colley works at the CAIP center which focuses on mostly aquatic plants, she focuses on outreach of those invasive plants that are essentially near bodies of water. The center also does work with upland, or plants away from bodies of water as well.

The images below show the differences between an upland plant in a Florida forrest, versus what an aquatic plant looks like growing in and around water.

Left: Pine trees amongst ferns and underbrush in a south Florida forest by, Tyler Jones. Right: Aquatic plants along the bank of a lake by, Tyler Jones.

“Invasive plants tend to be beautiful plants, so it can be challenging for people to understand why in the world we would be against plants that are beautiful” Colley explained.

While invasive plants may be beautiful, they can spread like wildfire and rapidly cover many acres of land. For example, Brazilian Pepper in central Florida has taken over 700,000 acres of land that cannot be contained or reduced. Due to the invasiveness, nothing else Is growing there, which reduces the biodiversity.

Biodiversity is when there are a variety of plants and animals living within an ecosystem. If only one plant is taking over an area, this means there are a substantial lack of other organisms living there and nothing is able to keep the ecosystem balance in check.

Pictured is a very pretty and highly invasive plant in Florida, the Mexican Petunia by, Tyler Jones.

Up-close image of an invasive upland plant, Brazilian Pepper, provided by UF/IFAS.

“Florida is a hotspot for invasive plants. Florida and Hawaii are really like the most heavily invaded states” said Colley.

To create these prime spots for invasive plants, it comes down to having subtropical humid, subtropical tropical and temperate environments. This means that Florida has several climates within itself, it creates the perfect breeding ground for all types of plants to survive.

Colley also believes that another reason Florida is a hot spot for invasive plants is due to the vast amount of shipping ports around Florida. With all the traveling that comes and goes and new people coming in all the time, there just has to be plants that come along with that.

Sailboats docked at a marina on the St. John's River by, Tyler Jones.

An aquatic invasive plant Colley describes is the Hydrilla. This is a plant that grows wide and densely within bodies of water.

Hydrilla can be seen here overtaking a body of water taken by, Shelby Oesterreicher.

Hydrilla is an invasive aquatic plant that can be considered good or bad, depending on where the stakeholder stands. For example, for a fisherman the Hydrilla may be beneficial as fish generally tend to be around this plant. Which in return, could mean the fisherman has a chance of getting a catch for the day.

A fishing hook can be see attached to an uprooted Hydrilla from a fisherman. Taken by, Marisol Amador.

Another stakeholder who benefits from the Hydrilla are duck hunters. Ducks eat the plant, so it could indicate to the hunter that duck may be in the area soon, if not already. While there are positives to the plant, since it is an invasive there are definitely negative aspects.

A large reason why Hydrilla is frowned upon is because of the large growth it has. It will grow so thick and dense that it can block water flow and natural movement of the water ecosystem. This can in return can cause damage to water levels, disrupt any organism navigating below and can clog waterways making them difficult to navigate safely.

Hydrilla in dense amount growing in a lake. Captured by, Marisol Amador.

Colley mentioned earlier about the shipping ports and all of the travel done into and out of Florida. A great question is why people bring these plants with them if they are not a professional gardener or have a business selling plants. She mentions a very interesting thought about how people who move bring things they are attached too.

Emotions are what make us human and can lead to decisions without thinking. Think back to how some food or songs make you feel. It is the same way with some people and plants.

These thoughts, emotions and actions can in return cause an accidental spread of an invasive species.

“There’s this element of our perception of plants and our emotional connection that we have. So, maybe we grew up in a state where such and such species was native. That plant is important to us. Maybe our mother or grandmother grew it, and so we tend to have an emotional connection to that plant, and so we might bring it with us” Colley stated.

Robbie Griffin (left) of the Family Nutrition Program laughing with an individual holding freshly harvested leafy greens sharing the joy of harvesting plants. Photo taken by, Tyler Jones.

CAIP and its scientists are working with Florida landowners and communities to find balanced methods/ways for managing invasive plants. If interested in connecting with CAIP or Colley for more educational information, the contact is listed below.

Created by, MaryJo Peters