Thursday, September 26, 2013

Porcelain-berry Is Bringing Me Down

Porcelain-berry, the kudzu of the North, on the periphery of my natural area
For some reason (perfect temperatures, soil moisture, carbon dioxide concentrations, or a synergistic interaction of all three), the invasive Asian vine porcelain-berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) "exploded" in my preserve this summer.  The perennial vine is ever present, and always the biggest threat in the natural area.  When I first took my job 25 years ago, one of the first tasks I set for myself was to bring the plant under control in the most heavily infested areas, and I was really able to knock it back with several years' intensive mechanical and chemical control efforts.  But, as I said, this year it has re-surged with a vengeance. 

Porcelain-berry fruits in varying stages of ripeness
Porcelain-berry was introduced to the united States from eastern Asia, probably as a garden ornamental.  It's fruits are attractive for about two weeks in the fall, but the rest of the year the plant just looks like a sprawling grapevine - to which it is very closely related.

Once the plant escaped the bounds of gardens (undoubtedly aided by birds that eat its fruit and then defecate the seeds elsewhere), it found a perfect home in the Mid-Atlantic.  It grows up into the canopy, spreads out to capture sunlight, and blankets the trees supporting it, eventually shading the trees to death or ripping off their limbs when the weight of the vines becomes too much for the tree to bear, especially when covered in snow and ice in the winter.
Porcelain-berry flowers attracting a honeybee
Porcelain-berry is served by generalized pollinators, so it is not dependent on a specialized bee, wasp or bat to spread its pollen.  And, while it's an introduced species, our native North American songbirds (and white-tailed deer) consume it readily, helping to spread the plant across the landscape, probably because it is so closely related to the grapes that are already familiar to our native species.

The only insects I have ever observed damaging porcelain-berry leaves are invasive, non-native Japanese beetles, but they never become numerous enough to inflict real harm to the plant.  I suspect that even if the plant has a specific disease or insect pest that keeps it in check in its homeland, such a disease or insect could never be imported into the United States as a biocontrol agent because it likely would also attack commercial grapes.
A porcelain-berry rhizome
Porcelain-berry develops an extensive, thick underground stem or rhizome.  The rhizome grows through the soil and sends up shoots ever few feet or so.  An infestation of porcelain-berry may actually consist of only a few plants all growing from the same underground stems.  Cutting off a few of the above-ground vines hardly fazes the plant, which has plenty of resources stored underground.  The only feasible method of control is to poison the plant with a broad-leaf herbicide applied either to the foliage or directly onto the rhizome after an above-ground stem is severed.

One of my board members asked me to do a photographic inventory of land parcels on the periphery of the preserve that we might be able to acquire to add to the natural area.  I completed the inventory and prepared a PowerPoint program that I presented at the last board meeting.  In my remarks prefacing the presentation, I alerted the board members to note that every single one of the 10 parcels I had photographed that was not maintained as a meadow was completely overwhelmed by porcelain-berry.  The Vandals are at the gates, and the endgame doesn't look good. 
Porcelain-berry is really bringing me down; it's the last straw.  I have psychically and physically invested nearly half my life in the stewardship of my natural area preserve and, if anything, it is in worse condition now than when I started working.  Storm-water flooding is worse, streambank erosion is worse, white-tailed deer damage is stable but is not declining, the invasive non-native emerald ash borer is on our doorstep and will kill perhaps a third the trees in the preserve, and porcelain-berry (and other invasive vines) are, if anything, even more prolific than they were a quarter-century ago.  If I haven't already crossed the threshold, I'm close to the point of despairing about my professional career.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


The president of my board of directors - a man I respect, admire and count as a friend - asked me to prepare a photo essay of 10 properties located adjacent to my natural area preserve that our land trust could potentially acquire for conservation in the future should money become available.  He wanted me to prepare the essay for presentation at a board meeting.  His "simple" request touched off two weeks of intensive work during which I had to photograph the properties and then prepare a PowerPoint presentation of my findings.  (My board president was very satisfied with the result.)

Our natural area preserve is embedded in a very suburbanized landscape.  The protected area is bounded by a network of old, narrow colonial-era roads, some of which bear a lot of traffic.  In a few instances I felt like I was taking my life in my hands as I stood on the verge of a road during rush hour (the light was best at that time of day) taking a picture with semis roaring by at 45 mph a few feet away.

Some of the roads were less heavily traveled, though, and I could be more leisurely with my photography.  On one of these roads, as I was nearing the end of my photo shoot, I looked down and saw a small garter snake coiled up at the edge of the pavement.  I nudged the snake but it didn't move; it was stiff, attracting flies and clearly dead.  But it wasn't obviously squashed.  I didn't straighten out its lifeless body, but I suspect that it had been mortally injured by a passing vehicle and had coiled into this incredibly tight ball in its death throes.
I drive this road frequently, and it just as easily could have been my car that dealt the fatal blow as any other.  I imagined this snake's misery as it died as reflected in its final configuration and was overwhelmed by sadness.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Mixed Bag at FringeArts

Kali and I went to choreographer Brian Sanders' JUNK's performance of "Hush Now Sweet High Heels and Oak" (I know it doesn't make any sense), part of the Philadelphia FringeArts festival in Center City Philadelphia last night. The capacity crowd was pumped, and the dancers/gymnasts/aerialists gave it their "all," but Kali and I would give JUNK's performance a mixed review. When the performers were dancing, tumbling, and executing some spectacular climbing and rope work, the show soared, but there were a few too many spots that dragged or were utterly confusing (zombie apocalypse in a swamp; what was that all about?). Such unevenness is par for the course for FringeArts, but this was not Brian Sanders' best work. Oh, by the way, the image accompanying this post has been retouched: the dancers, male and female, performed in nothing more than g-strings. Mind you, I'm not complaining...