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Love Me Tendril

First, a Vine's Leafy Embrace. And Then, Death by Clinging.

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 5, 2004; Page D01

It has been the summer of vines -- a summer horror blockbuster of VINES!

Haunted green mansions of kudzu soar above the Potomac River, constructed on the bones of dead and dying hardwoods sacrificed to the vine that grows a foot a day, in a league with The Blob.

Oriental bittersweet mugs the trees in Rock Creek Park. The bright orange berries will make pretty Thanksgiving wreaths, while the trees choke and die.

Porcelainberry, the beautiful but evil Asian cousin of the wild American grape, smothers landscapes in Wheaton and Arlington. It smooths out contours in the land, erases personality, makes the bushes and trees look like covered furniture that will never reappear.

There's more: Chinese wisteria, Japanese honeysuckle, English ivy, mile-a-minute . . . taking over roadsides and stream banks, invading neighborhoods and parks.

Maybe all the rain this year set off the riot of vines. Or maybe this summer we reached a tipping point in the exponential spread of these invasive species. Then again, maybe we've reached a tipping point in development -- new roads and shrunken forests taxing native plantlife and creating openings for invaders.

Or maybe we are just paying better attention: Once you start to notice vines, you begin to see them everywhere.

Since no one has measured vine acreage over the years, there's no statistical proof an explosion is underway. But people consulting their own yardsticks are worried.

"We're really losing our parks," says Steve Young, who joined neighbors in Arlington two years ago to form RIP -- Remove Invasive Plants. "It took decades to get as bad as it is. Now people are noticing."

"These plants have taken over . . . national parks, wild and recreation areas, and back yards," says Ellen Nibali, horticultural consultant with the Home and Garden Information Center of University of Maryland's Cooperative Extension. "The issue did not even have a name until about a decade ago. Yet the phenomenon has existed and intensified."

You only have to walk outside or drive around to feel like a witness to an experiment gone horribly out of control.

The vines kill trees by strangling trunks and smothering the canopy until photosynthesis shuts down. They also crowd out other native plants. Creatures that eat those plants go hungry, then creatures that eat those creatures suffer. The ecosystem shudders. What's left is . . . vines.

John Huennekens is cutting sinewy intruders one Saturday with neighbors in Arlington's Bluemont Junction Park. "Ten years ago, you could sled down this hill," he says. Now the hill is an impenetrable jungle of porcelainberry, honeysuckle and ivy.

Carole Bergmann walks the paths along Sligo Creek in Silver Spring one Thursday, as she has countless times in the last decade. She sees Oriental bittersweet conquering groves of shrubs, porcelainberry gang-tackling a tall cherry tree.

"It hasn't looked like this until recently," says Bergmann, forest ecologist for the Maryland-National Capital Park & Planning Commission. "It's just an onslaught."

Then there is your own back yard. This is where the war gets personal. You feel repulsion the afternoon you spy a snaky invader sneaking up the holly tree.

Beware: The countryside is dotted with forgotten homesteads, as obliterated as the memory of their inhabitants -- except for the tremendous wisteria thickets that now rule the properties.

If we lose this fight, the vines will bury us.

The Roots of the Problem

The road to planet of the vines has been paved with good intentions.

Philadelphia, 1876, the Centennial Exposition. Over at the Japanese Pavilion an amazing plant is on display. Instant shade, lovely purple flowers -- what was not to like about kudzu?

In the 1930s and 1940s, the U.S. government underwrote kudzu planting throughout the southeast for erosion control. By the 1950s, federal horticulturists realized their mistake, but it was too late. Kudzu ate the South.

Mile-a-minute has been traced to a nursery in York County, Pa., in the 1930s. It arrived with some rhododendron stock. The owner of the nursery liked the plant and let it reproduce. Then it escaped. In 60 years, the vine spread 300 miles in several directions, according to the National Park Service. It's also called Devil's tail tearthumb because of its tiny but vicious thorns and its perfect-triangle leaves that resemble the Devil's pointed tail.

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