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.
The other invasive vines arrived as decorative plants in the 18th and 19th centuries and can still be purchased at many nurseries.
They landed in the New World without their native pests and diseases, which kept them in check back home. Birds and other creatures love the forbidden fruit and excrete the seeds hither and yon. The vines' fertility is awesome: They produce more seeds than native plants, and the seeds may survive in the ground more than a decade, waiting for the right moment to pounce.
Some vines don't need seeds to spread. A scrap of English ivy tossed in the dirt can grow up to be a tree-killer. Oriental bittersweet is especially cunning. It can wait years in the shade until one day a break in the forest -- caused by a storm, or a developer -- gives it enough light to scale tall trees in a single season.
Kudzu is king of the growth spurts, about 60 feet during the spring and summer growing season. Mile-a-minute grows 25 feet; porcelainberry, 15 feet.
In contrast, native vines such as grape, greenbrier, Virginia creeper, even poison ivy do not subjugate -- they participate in landscapes.
But the real enemy is us. Our yards are the main source of the vines loose in the wild. They were planted once upon a time as ornamentals by the people who previously owned our houses.
"The park was surrounded by Victorian mansions ever since inception," says Sue Salmons, resource management specialist for Rock Creek Park. "To gardeners, the more exotic the plant the better, especially Victorian gardeners."
Anyone can have a green thumb with invasives.
"These plants are more than low-maintenance, they're no-maintenance," says John Peter Thompson, chief executive officer of Behnke Nurseries. "Basically all you have to do is get them into place and walk away."
Thompson won't sell porcelainberry and Oriental bittersweet. He does sell English ivy -- with a warning label.
Now, after generations in the New World, vines are a leading example of the larger problem of invasive plants taking over the woods. And invasive plants fit into the overall grim picture of all invasive species running amok, from zebra mussels to snakehead fish.
Yet while a single snakehead becomes a monster celebrity, the quiet creep of millions of vines can pass barely noticed.
"Everybody and their dog had to be out at that lake getting their picture taken for one fish," Bergmann says, referring to the lake in Wheaton Regional Park where a snakehead was caught in April. Meanwhile, "this whole park, this whole county is being inundated by these invasive species plants that are changing the ecosystem even as we speak."
Steve Young remembers the day he discovered the threat of vines.
He was walking in the Long Branch Nature Center park next to his Arlington neighborhood in the fall of 1994. He trod along one of his regular paths through the quiet forest when something caught him by surprise: A wooden bench beside the path was engulfed in ivy.
"I had this 'that's-not-right!' reaction," he says during a recent visit to the bench. "I just started pulling ivy off."
Volunteer vine-cutters often date their activism to such epiphanies. All at once they notice the shocking transformation of a favorite piece of land.
Young, now 50, an information technology specialist with the Environmental Protection Agency, began regular trips to the park to attack the ivy mat that covered the forest floor. Gradually other weed warriors began to join forces with one another and county park rangers. At their urging, two years ago Arlington became one of the first jurisdictions in the region to hire a full-time invasive plant fighter. The citizen volunteer group RIP now has about 30 members.
Parallel volunteer efforts have sprouted around the Beltway. One of the oldest is Weed Warriors, created by Bergmann in Montgomery County in 1999. It has more than 250 members.
On a recent afternoon, Young hikes through the Long Branch woods, pointing out progress.
The wisteria thicket that used to be near the outdoor amphitheater is gone. That vine was a threat to national security: It helped conceal the hiding place where Russian handlers left $50,000 for FBI spy Robert Hanssen in 2001.
The woods are opening up, providing breathing space for the return of native plants. Some of the young trees are still stooped -- not yet recovered from their burden of vines. Trunks have twining scars where vines once girdled them.
But across the creek is another huge thicket of wisteria, growing stronger. And ivy sprouts are appearing in cleared sections. Somewhere up a hill is the Lost Grill -- a barbecue amenity marooned in honeysuckle, totem of the work yet to be done.
Young spots an exceptionally ugly vine defiantly persisting in a cleared section.
"I think I am going to hit it," Young says. "I am ready to say, 'Die, porcelainberry, die!' "
He pulls a folding saw out of his backpack.
Charles Darwin studied vines.
"Plants became climbers," he wrote, " . . . to reach the light and to expose a large surface of their leaves to its action and to that of the free air."
That much seems obvious.
The genius and mystery of vines is how they climb. Unlike a tree, they don't waste energy building a platform. They grow thick and woody only after they've reached the top.
"They're very smart plants," says Diane Pavek, research coordinator in the Washington region for the National Park Service. "What a great idea to be green, and put all your energy to where you can get up to the light, and then create your woody stem."
Different styles for different vines. Bittersweet and wisteria wind around tree trunks on their way to the top. Porcelainberry sends out tendrils. Ivy has tiny roots to grip the bark.
Vines have light-sensitive and touch-sensitive hormones. To twine around a branch, the cells on the side facing away from the branch elongate, allowing the vine to curl toward the branch.
Where vine meets void is a dramatic forest frontier. Leafless vine tips grow several feet horizontally into space, groping with relentless evolutionary imperative. Success is never enough. Vines always want more.
Finding nothing, the exploring scout eventually curls back on itself with a kind of resignation.
How does it choose direction? What if the breeze brushes it against a sapling? Will it know? Is finding the next ride a matter of blind luck?
We don't know. No one has done the science, until now.
Kevin Vaughn has set out to answer the question: How do vines vine?
He is a cell biologist with the Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, based in Stoneville, Miss.
"What I've found out so far," he says, "is all the plants that start to vine, start out as not a vine."
That is, they emerge from the soil as ordinary plant seedlings. After growing several inches, they switch to a vining mode -- they get longer, produce tendrils.
Vaughn is studying what changes occur between the last pre-vining point and the first vining point. If you understand the transformation, you might be able to develop a chemical to suppress it.
"We want to discover why these vining weeds are so very successful," says Vaughn, "and then try to use that as their Achilles' heel."
Battling the Green Monster
In 2000 the National Park Service launched what is now a $5 million program to deploy 16 Exotic Plant Management Teams across the country.
At dawn one Tuesday, the Washington region's invasive-plant SWAT team sets out from headquarters on MacArthur Boulevard NW to attack wisteria in Prince William Forest Park.
The team of six is still coming to grips with the scope of the problem in the Washington area's 14 national parks. Using Global Positioning System technology, they have been mapping thickets of vines and weeds. After covering just a fifth of the territory, they have found 14,491 acres of Japanese honeysuckle, 2,348 acres of Oriental bittersweet, 1,819 acres of English ivy, 1,683 acres of porcelainberry, 321 acres of mile-a-minute, 240 acres of wisteria and 58 acres of kudzu.
Last year, the team treated -- using blades and chemicals -- 351 acres of vines. (The team treated another 995 acres of other invasives.)
"They're totally outcompeting native habitat," says Lisa Jameson, team manager.
Prince William Forest Park is a 14,500-acre woodland off I-95 that is relatively pristine, but for several wisteria patches.
On arrival, Jameson visits the site known as the old Taylor Farm, federal property since 1942. All that's left of the farmhouse is the foundation. Four years ago, you could not detect even that -- wisteria had claimed acres.
If not attacked, the thicket would have spread throughout the park. The vine team hacked and sprayed the wisteria into remission. Now there are piles of dead vines up to four inches in diameter. But the woods are clear. Native plants are sprouting -- along with a few hardy wisteria seedlings.
A park historian found the story of that vine. It was planted in the 1920s or 1930s by one of the Taylor daughters. "In the next year or two," a Taylor son told the historian, "it took over everything."
A couple years ago, Jameson was exploring another wisteria thicket on George Washington Memorial Parkway land near CIA headquarters in McLean. Suddenly she fell head first into an old cellar.
It turned out to be the ruins of the Leiter estate, built in 1912, burned in 1944 -- and ultimately sacrificed to the vine.
Back in Prince William Forest Park, the team turns its attention to an untreated wisteria jungle along Route 619.
Members of the Student Conservation Association, a national program offering summer internships fighting invasives, chop the vines with hatchets, then spray the stumps with herbicide. Now is the perfect time to treat vines with chemicals because they are sucking nutrients down into their roots in preparation for winter.
"A lot of people will plant wisteria: 'Oh, look at the pretty flowers,' " says Faith Sternlieb, a hatchet-wielding graduate student from Colorado State University. "It will take down roofs."
She lands a dozen blows on a woody cable thick as a baseball bat.
Team members with a spray tank soak the wisteria foliage with more herbicide, dyed blue so they can tell where they've treated. They will have to treat the area again and keep it under surveillance for years.
Cynthia Wanschura, the vine team's database manager, dons a yellow backpack with an antenna poking out. This is the GPS equipment. She walks the perimeter of the thicket and comes up with a measurement: Add .812 acres to the inventory of vines.
A Growing Concern
In the Bible, vines are signs of good fortune, prosperity, sources of shade, fruit, wine.
Jesus compares himself to a vine, in the Book of John: "I am the vine, ye the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing."
William Faulkner wrote about vines. They were entanglements of sex and nostalgia, the fecundity of the land and the unfinished urge of history -- out of control, perhaps, but not entirely bad.
From "Absalom, Absalom!" (1936):
"Once there was . . . a summer of wistaria. It was a pervading everywhere of wistaria (I was fourteen then) as though of all springs yet to capitulate condensed into one spring, one summer: the spring and summertime which is every female's who breathed above dust, beholden of all betrayed springs held over from all irrevocable time, repercussed, bloomed again. It was a vintage year of wistaria: vintage year being that sweet conjunction of root bloom and urge and hour and weather . . . "
By the time James Dickey published his poem "Kudzu" in 1964, there wasn't much good left to say about vines.
Japan invades. Far Eastern vines
run from the clay banks they are
Supposed to keep from eroding.
Up telephone poles,
Which rear, half out of leafage
As though they would shriek,
Like things smothered by their own
Green, mindless, unkillable ghosts.
In Georgia, the legend says
That you must close your windows
At night to keep it out of the house.
Vines had begun to take on the character of the antagonist in a morality tale. They had become the snake in the Garden of Eden -- which is approximately the role they play in your own back yard.
Let's see, there's English ivy scaling the magnolia, honeysuckle hitching onto the holly, more honeysuckle camouflaging a cinder-block retaining wall that looks like the blunt work of a do-it-yourself mason, porcelainberry claiming the garage, and mysterious wisteria in the side yard, creeping through the ivy, reconnoitering the woodpile.
It's not your fault. But now it's your problem.
The ivy resists, seems glued to the trunk, fastened by thousands of tiny roots. You have to stick a screwdriver between the vines and the bark to get a finger around the vines. Then they pull easily. Near the base of the trunk, where the vines are thickest, the magnolia bark is soft and moist where it has been covered: the beginning of rot. You try to uproot the ivy, but you aren't strong enough. You settle for clipping the vines at the bottom, then pulling the encircling ivy mat a few feet away from the base of the tree.
Slender honeysuckle shafts twine through the lower holly branches. You try to unwrap them but you can't. You yank and only end up breaking the holly branches. You leave the honeysuckle tops hanging from the limbs, unplugged, at least, from their roots. The roots you can't find. They're hiding in the ivy.
The honeysuckle decorating the cinder blocks is relatively easy. The ancient bleached and peeling vines are thicker than a garden hose and you cut them near the ground and fill three 30-gallon bags with blooming tangle.
Then you notice that runners from the honeysuckle have joined the porcelainberry attacking the garage. Most of that green drapery comes down easily, though you can't get to the roots of the porcelainberry, deeply hidden, regenerating. And you can't get at the vines coming over the back of the garage because they emerge from a thicket of vines, trees and the neighbor's metal fence that you haven't determined how to penetrate yet. (You have a life besides this.) You can't simply climb atop the garage because it is about to fall down, under the twin forces of rot and vine.
The wisteria runners emerge from the ivy, scale a rail fence, and, hovering about four feet above the ground and parallel to it, explore the void between the woodpile and the house. You think of an experiment. You erect a rake handle among the wisteria scouts. Will they grab it?
A few days later, they haven't taken the bait. The vines seem to have ignored the rake and extended closer to the house.
You look at the dull gray wall where the blossoming honeysuckle used to be. It looked better covered with honeysuckle.
You look back at the wisteria scouts, wagging back and forth in a slight breeze, probing space with wisteria intelligence, and wonder how all this will end.