Oriental bittersweet vs. me

Flickr/Esteve Conaway

Because I spend more time at home these days, I garden more, soaking up sun amid the flora and fauna. It appears Mother Nature has rewarded me for this activity with expanded eyesight, as I recently noticed with horror a network of vines strangling the spruce towering majestically in our backyard.

The distinctively dark green needles on the lower boughs were browning, dying. The more I looked, the more I realized the extent of the nefarious tangle growing from the mulchy understory, encircling branches, and squeezing the life out of them. I was – and am – amazed I hadn’t noticed this Darwinian drama before now.

My iNaturalist app identified the culprit as Celastrus orbiculatusas, i.e. Oriental bittersweet, deemed “an aggressive forest monster” by invasivespeciesinfo.gov. Much like the story of kudzu in the South, this vine with lovely berries was brought from Asia in the late nineteenth century as an “ornamental plant.” The importers were not satisfied with their own beautiful regional flora, and they assumed transporting one from the other side of the earth would be fine. Our climate, however, turned it into a menace, nurturing it beyond reason, making it destructive. On top of that, it turns out North American birds love Oriental bittersweet berries. They eat them and shit them all over the Eastern part of the continent, including my Phoenicia back yard, where they grow into a lethal tangle.

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As ever, by the time humans figured out they’d screwed up, it was too late. We must now learn to live with the consequences. Regarding this pesky, unwelcome species, vigilance is the key going forward. Grudging respect.

Sound familiar?

The only thing to do with the situation in my backyard was to use my Darwinian gifts of opposable thumbs, primate musculature, and prefrontal cortex to vanquish the thing, at least temporarily, and protect the indigenous spruce minding its own business being beautiful. I want no reward from the spruce except its continued existence. Other than this invasive inconvenience, there’s no good reason my descendants – or anyone’s – shouldn’t be able to cast their eyes on this lovely conifer for at least another century.

I suited up appropriately: long sleeves, leather gloves, jeans stuffed into white socks, leather boots laced. Straw cowboy hat. I sprayed tick repellent on my clothes and entered the breach. As temps soared into the nineties, I spent the better part of an afternoon with a hacksaw, a sledge axe, a hoe, and gardening shears, battling Celastrus orbiculatusas.

The hardest part was pulling the vines up by their roots – gripping them at the base, squatting to use my lower body, pulling, and yes, groaning like the animal I am. The telltale ripping sound was deeply satisfying, my enemy finally surrendering its hold on the soil, bringing up dark clumps as the reddish, gnarled roots hit the sunlight.

I kept thinking I was finished. The spruce corrected me, spurred me on. In her cool shade, I leaned against that massive trunk – the most massive of all the neighboring trees – and my eyesight sharpened, revealing more and more vines slowly asphyxiating her.

I fancied the spruce was whispering to me, melding with my consciousness, transferring strength, her messages and energy delivered not through my ears, but my nose, as it filled with the musky odors of earth, bark-stripped wood, and sap, and my exposed skin, each pore a little mouth, a receptor.

As the sun set and the heat dissipated, I left behind huge piles of Celastrus orbiculatusas in the back yard. (I will drag this mess far away from the spruce, hopefully to perish)  My aching body – especially my shoulders, arms, and hands – called out for rest. I showered, expecting to find at least one tick, but I didn’t. When sleep overtook me, it was restful, and deep green.


Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.

There are 2 comments

  1. Mary Lucchese

    You are the current steward of that tree and I am happy you are taking that seriously.
    In the old times Native Americans would stand next to a majestic conifer and lean back
    against it gently. The tree transferred energy and strength into them.

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