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The Kudzu of the North

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web MaM weed, Boston, Sam 002

by Jim Marquardt

It’s insidious, sneaky, fast. You don’t notice it creeping in. Then suddenly it’s there, climbing over your plants, shrubs, trees, bushes. Sag Harbor officials may be worried about the spread of bamboo in the village, even considering local laws to restrict its planting, but bamboo could turn out to be a minor invader compared to a threat we discovered at the end of the summer. It’s called the Mile-A-Minute weed or vine, and its name is only a minor exaggeration.

When a neighbor called in August and asked if we had seen it on our property, I joked that nature should take care of itself. Ann and I are garden-phobic and compete to see who can spend the least time on the foliage that grows around our house, most of our hours spent puzzling over cell phones and computers. But the next day I looked along the edge of the bluff where we do worry about holding the soil in place. A vine I had never seen before was everywhere, spreading like a shroud over every piece of flora, soaking up the sun and preventing it from reaching the growth underneath. Eventually it would block its victims from light and kill them. I tore off a length of the weed and showed it to my neighbor. Yep, that’s it.

If you have a big or small garden, consider this an early warning and something you must remember next spring. Cut out this article (after you’ve read the rest of the paper, of course), and stick it to the wall of your garden shed, or on top of your tools. Because in spring, you should keep a sharp look-out for this non-native, invasive vine. It’s actually frail looking with light green, perfectly triangular leaves, and tiny spines along its stems. You’ll usually find it along the edge of beds of flowers or shrubs where the sun is brightest.

Suitably alarmed, I checked further and learned that “persocaria perfoliata,” also known as devil’s tail, tear-thumb, or devil’s shield, is an “herbaceous annual trailing vine in the buckwheat family.” It’s native to eastern Asia (another Chinese plot?). Wikipedia shows color photos of the plant and gives lots more information.

You can view it first hand at the Morton Fish & Wildlife Refuge off Noyac Road. The last 50 yards or so of the beach trail is covered with it, especially along the east side. If we’ve had a frost by the time you read this, the vine may be gone, but it will be back next spring stronger than ever. A young fellow at the refuge wearing khakis and a wide-brimmed hat said the wildlife service doesn’t like to interfere with nature, but in this case they are considering eradication measures. He said Morton is the only refuge on Long Island infected so far.

Thinking it might be unique to our neighborhood, and not wanting to raise unnecessary alarm, I began asking people from other areas if they had seen it. Several did, including a few within the village. I stopped at the Noyac Golf Club and talked to one of the groundskeepers who said they’ve been battling the Mile-a-Minute vine for two years, pulling it out by hand or dosing it with herbicide.

Wearing heavy work gloves I easily dragged the vinous mat off our shrubs, though not always able to find its roots in the underbrush. I discovered that when a bunch of the vine is rolled up, its tiny spines cling together like Velcro, making it easier to jam into a garbage bag.

Larissa Graham who works at Stony Brook University for a joint program of the State University, Cornell and NOAA, confirmed the threat of the Mile-a-Minute vine and supplied a trove of information published by different sources. One organization reports the offending vine came to a Pennsylvania nursery from Japan years ago with a shipment of rhododendrons, and has since spread south to Maryland, D.C. and Virginia, and north to New York, Long Island and Southern New England. Another source says the stem can reach over 20 feet in length, grow six inches a day, and climb into trees.

The first hard frost will kill the invader but new growth will come in April and May from germination of over-wintering seed. White, inconspicuous flowers emerge in July and August, and a blue, pea-sized berry in August and September. Berries hold the seeds which can germinate for four years. Since birds and rodents eat the berries, outbreaks might occur a distance from the source,

Besides uprooting or applying glyphosphate (Roundup) biologists are testing a control agent, a weevil whose larvae bore into the stem. But haven’t a lot of those kinds of measures backfired? Before you know it, we could be up to our ears in weevils.

The Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation District in Riverhead says that though it has targeted it on Long Island, the vine’s growth has exploded in the last five years, making complete eradication impossible. New York State Partnerships for Regional Invasive Species Management (sounds like something in a sci-fi movie) ranks the vine invasion “very high,” the worst category, and says it is likely to “expand its distribution and abundance.” Nice way of saying it won’t go away.

With all your other worries, we’re sorry to bring this to your attention. The Mile-A-Minute vine can be added to the infamous list of non-native, invasive plants and animals that have adversely affected U.S. habitats and bioregions. Who can forget Kudzu “the vine that ate the South,” or the Pacific rat, zebra mussels that clog the intakes of power plants, the Asian long-horned beetle, the woolly adelgid that sucks sap from Christmas trees, Chinese mitten crabs, walking catfish, and Burmese pythons happy in the Everglades (do you really want to winter in Florida?). You have to go back to the Old Testament to find such a scary line-up.