Attack Of The Killer Vines And Other Plant Violence

This time of year our spirits rejuvenate with blooming flowers, sprouting foliage and chirping birds, but amid verdant lushness and bursting life death lurks, striking violently or creeping stealthily.

Sudden slaughter permeates the animal kingdom– a fox pounces on a rabbit; a hawk swoops down and snatches a mouse; a snake swallows a frog – but many plants commit mayhem in slow motion.

The deadliest in our neck of the woods is celastrus orbiculatus, an invasive, woody vine better known as Oriental bittersweet. Introduced into North America in the late 19th century as an ornamental plant and prized for its yellow flowers and bright orange berries, bittersweet has spread like cancer, killing by strangulation and suffocation.

Bittersweet slithers up native trees, coiling around trunks to choke off the flow of water and nutrients. By the time vines reach the crown, massive snarled clusters drag down the crippled tree and move on to their next victim.

Many of you, I’m sure, have witnessed bittersweet butchery throughout the Northeast, and loyal readers may recall my never-ending struggle to contain the vines in the woods around our house, a task akin to shoveling against the tide, so I won’t dwell on it. Suffice it to say additional formidable foes also keep me occupied.

As anyone who plants a garden or otherwise tries to control what grows where quickly realizes, weeds and other competing vegetation often have their own horticultural propensity. Dandelions, nettles, barberry and briars pop up among tomatoes; knotweeds push out peppers; nature doesn’t so much hate a vacuum as it resists most man-made efforts to fill it with selective species.

Because I avoid chemical warfare I must employ crude weapons – principally a hoe, mattock and hatchet – but every so often I break out my equivalent of a Gatling gun, a gas-powered line trimmer, which decimates everything with a stem in its path.

I don ear and eye protection and fire up this contraption to clear around the thousands of tree seedlings I’ve planted, taking care not to accidentally lop off the immature spruce, fir and pines that are gradually becoming an evergreen forest.

In order for my coniferous trees to spread, though, some deciduous trees must be sacrificed. I harvest some hardwoods for firewood – mostly black birch, which left to their own devices will crowd out other species; some hickory, and only those oaks that occasionally drop monstrous limbs (one smashed the windshield of my car; another came down only minutes after I’d passed beneath it).

I also felled a number of trees near the garden to allow more sunlight to penetrate, a reminder that we humans can be as selfishly merciless as bittersweet.

For the most part I spare the magnificent beech trees scattered throughout the woods, but every so often I’ve had to lop a limb or take down one nudging against the evergreens.

Beech trees, it turns out, have an amazing survival instinct: If you cut one of its limbs or chop into a root it sends up a battalion of new shoots. It’s like the Sorcerers Apprentice scene in “Fantasia,” when Mickey Mouse splits a water-carrying broom with an axe only to discover that each half has grown into a new broom, and on and on, before he is overwhelmed.

I’ve therefore learned its better to steer around beech trees. As for the bittersweet, I keep flailing away. Maybe it eventually will send up a white flag instead of a new yellow flower.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reader Comments

MORE BLOGS

What Snow and Ice? The Maple Sap Is Running!

Every year about this time, after having spent the past few months shoveling tons of snow from the driveway, lugging tons of firewood from the shed, getting out of bed dozens of times at 3 a.m. to stoke the stove, hauling countless buckets of...

Finally! A Worthy Snowstorm -- Maybe Even a Bombogenesis!

Just when we winter worshipers had resigned ourselves to another snowless season, and only a day after the temperature climbed ridiculously into the 60s, our prayers have been answered not just by an ordinary storm but by a meteorological...

Animal Tracks in the Snow: They All Tell a Story

If you thought most forest animals hibernated in winter, or at least slept through the night, take a stroll through the woods the morning after a snowfall.

What Does the Fox Say? Yip-yip-yip! Chance Encounters With Creatures Great and Small

While I lugged logs from the woodshed the other morning a yip-yip-yip! pierced the still air. First reaction: Did the neighbors get a dog? No, they were out of town for a few days. Yip-yip-yip!

Ringling Bros., SeaWorld and the Columbus Zoo: Pitfalls of Keeping Elephants, Orcas and Gorillas in Captivity

Large, wild animals belong in the wild, not in a circus, aquarium or zoo – a point reinforced by events involving three prominent, unrelated institutions in the last couple weeks.

Our Debt of Gratitude to President Obama, the Environmentalist-in-Chief

As we prepare to inaugurate a president who has repeatedly called climate change a "hoax," appointed as Environmental Protection Agency administrator an Oklahoma attorney general who is suing that agency, named the CEO of ExxonMobil as secretary...

Call of the Wild: A Clash Over Cellphones in The Great Outdoors

"Yeah, I’m standing on the summit now! … The view is incredible – I can’t believe I’m getting a signal up here!"

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Plunging into Icy Fishers Island Sound at the Annual New Year's Day Run-Swim

Look, I’m not going to lie: While some longtime participants in one of southeastern Connecticut’s most enduring, challenging and madcap traditions insist that plunging into icy water after a run on Jan. 1 is a refreshing and...

No Such Thing as Too Much Fun: A Great 2016; Hopes for an Even Better 2017

When it comes to adventurous fun my philosophy has always been too much is never enough, so when I look back at the highlights of the past 12 months, as I typically do when the calendar is about to flip, I can honestly say that 2016 was a...

Hey, Has Anybody Else Noticed It's Gotten A Little Chilly?

I guess I first realized the temperature had dropped a few degrees when I went out for a 5-mile run this morning and noticed that my eyelids had started to freeze shut, which loyal readers will recognize as Level IV on the Fagin Frigidity Index,...

Granola Munchers Vs. Snickers Gobblers: Conflict Over Plans for a Hotel on New Hampshire's Mount Washington

The first time friends and I trudged up New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in winter the frozen peak might as well have been Antarctica – hurricane-force winds and blinding snow battered us, the only climbers that day atop the highest...

How to Build a Stone Wall in 14,863 Easy Steps

I realized long ago that you’re never really finished building a stone wall, even after you’ve dragged and hefted into place what seemed like the final boulder, exhaled mightily and stepped back to admire your work.

Just in Time for the Holidays: Fagin's Annual Gift Catalogue for the Discerning Outdoorsman and Outdoorswoman

How often does this happen to you: You’re merrily tearing through the woods in your four-wheeler and come to what looks like a shallow stream but turns out to be a deep, water-filled ditch, so your beloved machine sinks like a stone beneath...