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

Rocks In My Head, Part 37,482

Descending New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in a blizzard some time ago, a friend and I briefly strayed from the ice-encrusted Lion Head Trail – not all that surprising considering wind-whipped snow reduced our visibility to...

Hey, Unless Your Head Is Made Of Cement, Wear A Bike Helmet!

Last Saturday was glorious, perhaps the last sunny, warm day of the season, so a couple friends and I set out for a 50-plus-mile ride on Rhode Island’s magnificent East Bay Bike Path, one of my favorite places to pedal.

How to freeze your - - - off in four easy steps

I know you’ll find this rather shocking, but all those white things in the new picture of me aren’t really snowflakes – they’re feathers from an old pillow, which we thought would be a clever way to illustrate a...

Hey, Unless Your Head Is Made Of Cement, Wear A Bike Helmet!

Last Saturday was glorious, perhaps the last sunny, warm day of the season, so a couple friends and I set out for a 50-plus-mile ride on Rhode Island’s magnificent East Bay Bike Path, one of my favorite places to pedal.

Forget San Juan Capistrano – If You Want to See Hundreds of Thousands of Swallows, Check Out the Lower Connecticut River

Like the first snowflakes of an approaching blizzard, a small flurry of tiny birds flitted across the slow-moving water of the Connecticut River earlier this week, just as the sun began to dip below the western bank in Old Saybrook.

Celebrating the Spirit of Johnny Kelley, as We Dedicate a Statue in His Memory

Participating in weekly runs with legendary marathon champion Johnny Kelley back in the 1970s was a lot like attending a religious service.

Pink Gloves Save The Day At The Josh Billings RunAground Triathlon

Paddling a tandem kayak in the second leg of the Josh Billings RunAground Triathlon in the Berkshires of Massachusetts is a lot like competing in a combined NASCAR, Formula One and Demolition Derby race, what with every manner of vessel...

A Three-peat Victory, Redemption and Inspiration at Norwalk’s Lighthouse to Lighthouse Race

As Ian Frenkel and I stealthily steered our 22-foot tandem kayak toward Greens Ledge Lighthouse on Long Island Sound off Norwalk Saturday, we closed in on our good friend and arch rival Phil Warner, who was racing in his 24-foot two-man...

The Elegance (and Pain) of a White Mountain Presidential Traverse

Most hikers traipsing among New Hampshire’s White Mountains consider peaks in the Presidential Range – Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower – a worthy day hike, and many break up ascents of the more...

Superior Kayaking in Minnesota

Over the years I’ve heard many sounds while kayaking – roaring rapids, crashing waves, rumbling thunder, whistling wind, pelting rain, quacking ducks, barking seals, crying loons, splashing whales, screeching eagles –...

You Can't Mess With Mother Nature (But That Doesn't Stop Me From Trying)

In his book "The Control of Nature" John McPhee chronicles such futile human efforts as spraying fire hoses on a volcanic lava flow that threatened an Icelandic fishing village, building dikes along the flood-prone...

For the Ultra Athlete, Nothing Succeeds Like Excess

At 5:40 Thursday morning the sun had yet to poke above the horizon, but Laura Ely of Stonington and Pam Dolan of Mystic already had begun a 20-mile cycle through the hills of southeastern Connecticut.

A Fox in the Blueberries and Other Garden Surprises

    When my wife returned from the garden the other day, somewhat breathless and empty-handed, she announced, "You’ll never believe what’s trapped in the blueberry enclosure."