Group’s goal: Chase ivy out of town
Group’s goal: Chase ivy out of town
P. Kevin Morley
Suzette Lyon, master naturalist Laura Greenleaf, master gardener Robin Ruth and master naturalist Kitty Hardt cut away invasive English ivy on trees at Forest Hill Park in South Richmond.
BY REX SPRINGSTON
Richmond Times-Dispatch | Updated 11 hours ago
Laura Greenleaf took a break from the hard work of sawing through a garden-hose-size ivy vine that clung to an elm in Richmond’s Forest Hill Park.
She looked straight up the ivy-engulfed trunk and said: “I hope you appreciate this, tree.”
The elm, apparently in a weakened state, had no immediate response. But Greenleaf and three other Richmond women were undeterred as they sawed, snipped and pulled up the fast-growing vines in the South Side park in mid-November.
The women are part of a loose anti-ivy league of local volunteers who spread the word about ivy’s evils and fight a never-ending battle to remove it from their yards and, with permission, from parks.
“I probably pulled 100 ivy seedlings out of my yard this summer,” said Suzette Lyon, who worked in the park with Greenleaf. “It’s like an epidemic.”
Often called English ivy or common ivy, the well-known vine is frequently associated with attractive gardens and august halls of academe. Indeed, many people love ivy’s shiny, evergreen leaves.
But the non-native vine has a nasty habit of escaping its garden confines, covering forest floors so completely that it crowds out native flowers and shrubs that birds, butterflies and other animals need.
Conservationists call these one-species expanses “ivy deserts.”
Lyon and a fellow ivy fighter, Robin Ruth, created the website IvyOutOfRichmond.org. Its tone blends despair with humor.
“Left unchecked, English ivy could be the vine that ate Richmond. … Practice deVINE intervention now,” the site advises.
Scientists have long sounded the alarm over invasive species, typically plants and animals that made their way to new lands and spread so quickly that they overpowered native species. Some famous examples in the U.S. include kudzu (“the vine that ate the South”) and pushy birds called European starlings.
Colonial settlers brought English ivy to North America as an ornamental plant. Like so many cases involving the transport of trouble-making plants and animals, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Today, many experts consider invasive species the No. 2 threat to natural areas, behind the outright destruction of habitats.
Its opponents say ivy may be the most widespread invasive plant in the city of Richmond, where it has had a lot of time to infest old parks and neighborhoods.
“It’s the most irritating to me, because it comes out of people’s yards,” said naturalist Kitty Hardt. “They’re still planting it, and the nurseries are still selling it.”
Jeff Miller, executive director of the Virginia Nursery & Landscape Association, said via email that a lot of places troubled by ivy stem from plantings that were abandoned.
“English ivy makes an excellent ground cover if used in the appropriate location” and maintained, Miller said. Homeowners should get advice from a certified horticulturist on the best ground cover for them, he added.
Ivy “is not as popular as it once was, because growers, landscape designers/contractors and garden centers are more cognizant of improper siting of ivy and recommend alternative choices,” he said.
Other states are also dealing with ivy. In Oregon, for example, it’s illegal to sell it.
“English ivy was the ground cover of choice for many, many years,” said Linda McMahan, a horticulturist at Oregon State University. “Now there are a lot of people all over the country trying to get rid of it.”
Efforts in the Virginia General Assembly to limit the use of ivy have failed.
Tom Smith, director of Virginia’s Natural Heritage Program, which protects important natural areas, has fought ivy at his Henrico County home near the Huguenot Bridge.
Smith knocked back a big patch by cutting it with a weed trimmer, then treating the scarred vines with an herbicide.
But hard-to-reach ivy remains, so once or twice a year Smith continues to pull and cut the vines.
“I would say once you get it on your property, it’s the gift that will keep on giving until no one lives there and it will have its way,” Smith said. “I think English ivy is definitely a plant that is here to stay. We are not getting rid of it.”
As a plant pathologist, Smith admires ivy’s ability to persist. “You’ve got to love a successful plant, even if it’s one you hate.”
Ivy can quickly spread along the ground, and tiny roots that exude a glue-like substance enable it to climb trees and buildings. When it gets off the ground, it produces purplish berries. Birds eat the berries and spread ivy seeds in their droppings.
That means ivy spreads in three ways — through its crawling vines, its seeds and from new plants that people put in their gardens.
There is debate over whether ivy can kill trees, because some trees persist with thick coats of ivy from vines as thick as your fist.
Some experts say those trees are weakened and susceptible to disease. Also, those extra ivy leaves can catch the wind like sails, increasing the chance of the tree blowing down in a storm.
Rick Myers, a plant expert with the Natural Heritage Program, compared planting ivy to smoking a cigar — you can legally do it, but what if your actions affect someone nearby?
“I know there’s no (Virginia) law saying you can’t plant ivy that will spread into your neighbor’s yard, but it’s still a valid ethical question: Should you do that?”
There are many people who remove ivy and other invasive plants locally, but there is no official count.
As the four Forest Hill Park ivy fighters prepared to leave, numerous trees remained covered in vines.
Talking to trees again, Greenleaf assured the victims, “We’re coming back.”