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Question of the Week © 2017 Mike McGrath
Note: Hundreds of Mike's informative articles are available (in alphabetical order!) right here at the Gardens Alive website. To find Mike's answers to your specific garden problem, Click here and find your topic (like Weeds, Worms, Rhododendrons...) in our complete alphabetical archive of Questions of the Week.
Weeds: You Can't Whack the World Away
Q. Arlene in Silver Spring recently forwarded us an email from a friend of hers named Nancy. It reads: "Look carefully at these photos of porcelain berry vine so that you can identify this awful plant. It showed up here in Montgomery County (Maryland) some years ago and started taking over. The vines you see draped over everything along The Beltway are porcelain berry. It produces enormous numbers of lovely little berries that the birds adore...and each one can become a new plant when those birds poop out the seed.
"If you see a young plant, pull it right away, because the roots become very strong after the second year and are very hard to get out. It looks much like a grape vine, and has tendrils that attach to other plants. They are like WIRES and hard to remove. If you already have an established plant, you may need to use an herbicide to kill it."
A. Nancy attached a handout from something called the "Plant Conservation Alliance" that looks like an old Wild West "Wanted Poster", but says 'least wanted' over a picture of the plant instead. Let's see…down at the bottom, it recommends spraying the plants with a mixture of really high concentrations of chemical herbicides and…DIESEL FUEL??? And KEROSENE???!!
We're going to 'conserve' plants by spraying them with powerful chemical herbicides laced with fuel oil? This is the kind of madness that always seem to follow when people start labeling some plants 'alien invaders.' And if the name of your plant-killing group includes the word 'conservation', you apparently also get to spray kerosene in the woods. Yay you!
My first thought was that this can't be legal; it would certainly appear to be a violation of FIFRA—the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. But the group advocating this dangerous practice has a lot of 'partners' in government agencies. (They actually call them "cooperators"; you can't make this stuff up!) And their website also lists a number of Botanic Gardens as member/cooperators—and the Xerces Society.
Yes, that Xerces Society: The organization dedicated to protecting pollinators. I guess no person or group is immune to this 'kill the bad plant' madness. So: what message do we need to get across to our listeners today?
First, don't mix the chemical herbicides Garlon and Roundup with fuel oil and spray it on plants that both the initial emailer and the PCA 'wanted poster' describe as being highly attractive to birds. Or if you do, please don't pretend that you're 'conserving' anything.
Second, and even more important, don't think that you or any group can ever control Nature. The plants that surround us are always going to be constantly changing as we alter their environment by creating large 'disturbed areas'—like around highways. We can't choose the plants that will thrive in these disturbed environments; we should be grateful that some plants can.
All you can achieve when you go into the woods with herbicides and—God help us—fuel oil is the death of huge numbers of pollinators, birds, amphibians and massive amounts of erosion. As we pave over more and more areas, and our rains become more and more intense we need every possible plant root in the soil to help manage that water—even when those roots happen to belong to a plant that someone who thinks they have the right to 'make a list' doesn't like.
Oh--and in addition to preventing erosion and feeding wildlife, this particular 'bad plant' is also extremely attractive. Another 'escaped ornamental', the speckled berries it produces are astoundingly beautiful; kind of a cross between an Easter candy I remember as a child and a Robin's egg.
In his brilliant book "Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast", the equally brilliant Harvard researcher Peter Del Tridici notes that the porcelain berry vine provides food and shelter for many kinds of wildlife and excellent erosion control; it's known for stabilizing ecologically sensitive areas like the banks of rivers and streams. Nuking it with hard-core chemicals would attack amphibians both directly and through erosion—and hurt the water quality.
And this specific 'bad plant' would be quickly replaced by a different aggressive vining weed, like the very similar wild grape or wild wisteria. Or Virginia creeper or poison ivy—and they aren't 'alien invaders'—they're both native plants. Are you still allowed to use diesel fuels on them, 'conservationists'?
Again, those roots are doing a massive amount of environmental good just by being in the ground. So if you honestly need to control a plant like this somewhat, just sever the roots. The above-ground growth will turn brown and die and then you can just pull it out of the trees or whatever. If it's on your property and you don't want it there, keep cutting it back to the ground for a few seasons and then spray the weakened new growth with a low-to-non-toxic herbicide whose active ingredient is soap or iron.
We really need to lose this knee jerk reaction of spraying plants that appear on some 'list' with the most environmentally damaging chemicals possible. My local township controls our roadside weeds mechanically. It keeps the view clear for drivers, and the roots left behind help mitigate the massive amounts of water that fall during heavy storms. If they were spraying herbicides, our hillsides would just wash away.