Bittersweet Medusa

A fat, single bittersweet vine is twining high into the crown of a tree, and there are no nearby sprouts to be seen. However, should you sever that vine and neglect to promptly paint the cut stump with an herbicide, the plant will become aggressively clonal. A plethora of bittersweet sprouts will soon be springing up, no longer inhibited by apical dominance (hormones from the top of the vine.)

Please don’t get the wrong idea:  that I condone routine herbicide use! However, cutting alone  means repeating the exercise on Medusa’s new “snakes” the following year and ad infinitum.

Even control by means of hand-pulling or with a weed wrench  will need follow-up, because the brittle roots break off, and remaining roots will sprout.  Because alternatives are absurdly difficult or time-consuming, one of the few herbicide uses that I reluctantly condone is to carefully apply  herbicide (with a window paintbrush, not a sprayer) . Several Nature Conservancy chapters recommend  triclopyr, the active ingredient in Brush-B-Gon and Garlon.

Seedlings can be identified by veiny, alternate, sharp-tipped leaves and orange roots

Apply to the cut surface and adjacent bark of a vine cut  less than ten minutes ago. This is possible when one works with a partner, one person cutting the vines, the other painting them (the “snip and paint” technique.)  In dense vegetation, it also may help to scout ahead of time and tie colored flagging  to the vines to be controlled.

Use a substantial container that will not tip over easily, and wear gloves, long sleeves, and goggles.   Based on my research, the only human health risk is eye-damage, if it splashes in your eyes.  As for the rest of the environment, available  data is too scanty to be confident of lack of harm;  therefore careful application is important.  However, we know an  invasive woody plant infestation will shade out native plants, and reduce the food supply for wildlife.  Therefore control by means of cut stump painting (within minutes after cutting) seems like the lesser of two evils.

A better solution would be to keep sheep, for whom the Medusa sprouts of bittersweet are a delicacy, but zoning forbids this on most smaller properties.

Note: I recommend that you check the product label and the active ingredient of any herbicide, insecticide, or fungicide you are considering using.  Google the name of the ingredient, and databases like Extoxnet will come up.   Look for the skull and crossbones symbol, the term “potential carcinogen”, and the list of types of organisms to which it is toxic, as a basis for your decision to use a product or not.

Additional photos of bittersweet have been posted on a blog dated 5-23-2010.

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About sigrungadwa

I am a consulting ecologist , professional wetland scientist, and registered soil scientist, based in Cheshire, Connecticut. I hold an MS from UConn Storrs in Ecology. My business, Carya Ecological Services, LLC, specializes in applying ecological principals and knowledge of native botany to a wide range of client projects.
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