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Killer Vines Attack Virginia Trees: Residents Fight Back

Virginia is – by nature – a green state.  Sixty-two percent of our land is forested, but scientists warn our trees are under attack.  Sandy Hausman reports on the danger posed by killer vines.

On a sunny spring day, a dozen neighbors in western Albemarle County are headed for the woods – to do battle with sharp tools and to paint the stumps of aggressive vines with herbicides.


Rod Walker leads the charge.  He founded a 10-county copperative called Blue Ridge PRISM – the Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management.  Walker acted after he and property manager Page Raines noticed a disturbing number of vines on this 15-hundred acre tree farm adjacent to the Shenandoah National Park.

“There are 10-20 acres where you could not walk into it.  There was just a wall of vines.  The trees were being overwhelmed.  Page had to start with a bulldozer and drive through the middle of it to create openings and get to the vines – to cut them off and then paint the stumps. We tackled the three big infestations, and then we realized we had probably 50-100 other outbreaks of various sizes around the property.”

And unless people step in, the trees are doomed.  Eric Geilker is a member of PRISM and a volunteer, helping to maintain sections of the Appalchian Trail.

“A lot of the dead trees you see are covered with vines.  It’s not a coincidence. This tree is encased in Asiatic bittersweet, and Asiatic bittersweet has used this tree as a freeway to get to the sunlight.”

In addition to Asiatic Bittersweet, Walker worries about wild grape vines and kudzu.

“Nelson County is particularly hard hit with kudzu and probably the further south you get, the worse it gets, so it does the same thing bittersweet does, which is it basically grows up over the trees, puts its leaves out over the top, grabs the sunlight, and the tree starves and eventually dies, plus the heavy weight of these big vines eventually helps topple the tree.”

Farm Manager Raines proves the point – pulling a massive tree branch from the back of his pick-up truck. It appears to have been strangled by a thick vine wrapped round and round from top to bottom.

“How would you describe that?  Well this is oriental bittersweet, about four inches in diameter, wrapped around what looks like a pine branch. This illustrates our challenge.”

The vines are tenacious with no natural enemies.  They spread rapidly, their seeds eaten, then excreted by birds. If people don’t kill the vines, PRISM members like Joyce Geilker fear huge sections of forest will die. 

“It does feel a little never ending, I have to say, but I do think we’re making progress.  I’ve seen really big changes in the appearance of places we worked.  We’ve had several of these work days, and all the places we’ve worked on are still clear.”

And the work is rewarding for other reasons. Tracey Johnson and David Maloney say it’s good for body and soul.

“I just feel like, at the end of the day, the trees are saying, “thank you,” bcause these vines grow up in the top and suffocate the trees, so I feel like they’re saying, “Yay!

“But also it’s just a joyful opportunity to get together with neighbors and catch up and enjoy each other’s company.”

They braved poison ivy, ticks, rattlesnakes and bears to be here, but those aren’t the only threats to progress.  Virginia nurseries actually sell some of the aggressive plants to gardeners, and the Trump administration hopes to cut the agriculture department’s budget which funds some of PRISM’s work. 

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief