Nature in the News: The Vile Vegetation Episode

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“OK, Doug, you good to go?”

“Can I get a bottle of water?”

“Somebody get Doug some water!”

“Cue cards ready?”

“Ready.”

“OK then, Randy, whenever you say.”

“OK, Doug, you’re on in 3 … 2 … 1…”

Good evening, Ipswich. I’m Doug Brendel. Welcome to Nature in the News. I’m standing here on the Linebrook Frontier, in the meadow behind my house, near a line of trees at the edge of my property. In September and October, these trees turned a spectacular array of colors, which my family and I enjoyed very much. Now, however, it’s November, and as you can see, most of the leaves have died and fallen off, and we hate them because we have to rake them, or they’re brown and ugly and still on the branches, and we hate them for taking so long to fall because we want to get the raking over with.

There’s an exception, however, in this particular line of trees. As you can see, there are these greenish-yellow leaves still hanging on. This type of leaf is glossy, it’s rounded with a pointed tip, and it’s finely toothed. These leaves are arranged alternately along their stems — and they’re attached to a vine sporting orange and red berries. And the vine is wrapping itself around the trees.

This is the evil Asiatic bittersweet — the dreaded invasive species Celastrus orbiculatus.

Bittersweet is that stuff that people used to make those twisty holiday wreaths from — maybe that’s why Americans started importing it in the 1800s, before they realized it was going to eat us alive. Bittersweet also might have been what Prince Charming had to hack his way through in Sleeping Beauty, I’m not sure. Anyway, it’s illegal to sell bittersweet in Massachusetts today — because bittersweet is what’s destroying your beautiful New England trees.

As the tree grows, the bittersweet vine literally strangles it, tightening and thickening until it cuts a deep groove through its host’s bark. (The unsentimental Germans don’t call it bittersweet; they call it the “tree strangler.”)

Bittersweet grows up faster than it grows out — it can reach a height of 60 feet or more — and it soon spreads its leaves over the top of its host. Which means, forget about photosynthesis. The host tree is in the dark, starved for sunlight, and soon dead. A whole forest can become a mass of bittersweet vines, tangled around trees that only appear to be alive — because of the bittersweet leaves blithely flourishing up top.

This vile vine also actually pulls trees down. Its main feeder vines can grow up to four inches in diameter, with dozens of tough shoots reaching up to the tree’s branches — and as the tree grows taller, the bittersweet shoots refuse to budge. First the tree’s branches bend; eventually they’re ripped off. On a younger tree, bittersweet can actually snap the trunk in two.

And bittersweet is fast. Birds disperse the seeds, and new vicious little bittersweet babies pop up like crazy all over the place.

Here’s the bottom line for folks in Ipswich: Your trees — especially those along property lines or fencerows, roadsides or power lines — could be murdered by this menace, if you don’t take action. Get out there and take a look. Pull the little guys up by their roots. Snip the middle-sized vines with garden shears. Hack down the big boys with a saw. And cart the creepy corpses off; otherwise, they’ll re-sprout. We have to eradicate this plague; otherwise future generations of Ipswichonians won’t have any trees to hang tire swings from, and carve their middle school girlfriend’s initials into.

Of course, you’ve got to be careful when you go bittersweet-stalking. Poison ivy, for example, is a climbing vine too. It’s not killing your trees, but it’s hell on your skin. (Poison ivy has three leaflets together; bittersweet has only one. And older ivy vines get hairy; bittersweet gets corky.)

But let me also say, friends: This isn’t just about science and the environment. Tonight’s edition of Nature in the News is personal for me. We have not lived in Ipswich long, but my wife Kristina has spent many, many hours out here, battling the bittersweet, in her thickest garden gloves and her grubbiest jeans, wrenching out the small plants, using her crosscut saw to take down the larger ones. It’s hard labor, it’s intense, it’s time-consuming. I know. I’ve stood here supervising her, hour after hour, so I’ve witnessed the exertion that this kind of undertaking requires. I can tell you firsthand, it’s exhausting.

In fact — well, look at this, would you! I’ve been standing here so long, there’s a bittersweet vine wrapping itself around my leg right now. Randy, zoom in here, will ya? This is really interesting. I guess if you stand in one place long enough, out here in the meadow, the bittersweet thinks you’re a tree. To tell you the truth, I’ve been called a stump more than once in my life, but never a tree! Haha!

Hey, this is funny. I can’t seem to get this thing unwrapped from my leg. Of course it’s tough when you’re holding a microphone, and you only have one hand available to— pull— pry— yank

OK, Randy, can you come give me some help here?

No, I’m not kidding.

I don’t care if this could be good for the Garden Channel. Could you please get me free from this— errp! Hey, it found a hole in my pocket! Hurry!

Doug Brendel owes his bittersweet fixation, and most of the factoids in this column, to fellow Ipswich frontiersman Dave Carpenter and Lexington Tree Committee member Gerry Paul.

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