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.