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.


Mark P said...

That really does look like the way kudzu overwhelms the landscape. I had no idea there was such a thing.

It's a real shame that it has turned out to be so hard to establish and maintain the natural area you have been working in for so long.

Carolyn H said...

Wow, that's a lot of porcelein berry. I do see it here, but never in anything close to the amount you have. I wonder why? We're not that far apart, though I do think I'm still in a different climate zone.

packrat said...


I'm really sorry to hear about the despair you feel concerning your preserve. I don't doubt your assessment, but I'm glad there are caring ecologists like you in the world. I guess we all know that dealing with these issues is a Sisyphean task. I had no idea that Porcelain-berry was such a destructive plant.

Keep up the good work. I'm certain you're doing the best you can.

Scott said...

Mark: Porcelain-berry is a terrible problem from at least Baltimore northward to New York City, but the problem seems to be worst the seaboard. There's a actually a native species of Ampelopsis that occurs on the Coastal Plain of the Carolinas; I'm sure it behaves itself better there.

Scott said...

Carolyn: Porcelain-berry seems to do better closer to the coast, as you suggest. I think that the warmer temperatures here contribute to that success. In addition, the plant's only a problem where it has become established; I know that sounds like a stupid comment, but I visit many nearby natural areas where there is no porcelain-berry (yet). A friend of mine used to work as a horticulturist at the Berkshire Garden Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He had a variegated porcelain-berry vine on a trellis, and he said it "behaved itself"; I wonder if that's because the plant was at the northern limits of its climatic tolerance and because it was variegated (and, thus, inherently weaker).

Scott said...

Packrat: Thanks for your sympathetic and supportive comments. My life's taking some turns that make me wax philosophical, and this mass of creeping greenery just sent me over the edge.

David Oliver said...

You could always try goats or sheep. That's what farmers down here used years ago to keep their fence rows clean.

Scott said...

David: We have purchased 4 goats and they love porcelain-berry! However, we've found that managing goats is pretty much a full-time job (they have to be supervised by an employee or they will escape from temporary, portable enclosures) and we can't afford to devote one full-time employee to the job. In fact, we're going to give the goats back to the farm where we obtained them because of the difficulty in managing them. Plus, it would take a pretty big herd of goats to work on 800 acres strung out over 3 miles along a stream. And, as I said, many neighboring properties are infested, too, so as soon as the goats finish clearing one area, it will become infest again from outside. A great idea, but impractical here; thank you!

David Oliver said...

I understand. Actually only too well. Earlier this Summer I bought 12 baby guineas to hopefully get rid of the ticks that had always been a problem here (I live in the woods). And the fleas that my cat had brought home from his roaming.

The guineas did a great job but I couldn't protect them 24/7 from predators.

You might try sheep. They are much easier to control but from your description of the situation, they would only solve part of the problem.

Scott said...

David: About 15 years ago, a member of Wild Turkeys Unlimited (or some such group) introduced "wild" (farm raised wild stock) turkeys to a wooded county park just downstream of my preserve. The turkeys eventually found their way up to my preserve where they have proliferated. People always said that they would clear ticks (which I'm sure they do to a certain extent), but 60 turkeys on 800 acres is not going to solve my deer tick/Lyme disease problem. I'm glad you had better success. BTW, we had guinea fowl and peacocks for a while (courtesy of neighbors who weren't very attentive keepers) but we had to ship them off to more rural venues because they were too noisy for our suburban situation.