Opinion: The Trees Next Door Are on Death Row

Trees
Photo by Angela Breck.

When I run, I lose myself in nature, immersed in the living world around me, neighborhood byways becoming enchanted forests. But when I see a tree being choked by invasive vines, it stops me in my tracks.

I feel the urge to rescue the afflicted tree, to slash the vines off its trunk. Thick and heavy, their ridged cords coil their victim in a strangulating embrace. It pains me that I have to turn my head the other way and continue past the innocent-looking vine that sentenced the tree to death.

English ivy and Oriental bittersweet sound sweetly familiar. But these are invasive vines. Spreading wildly through our gardens and natural spaces, they glue themselves to trees — felling them one by one — and doom our ecosystems. Once you know what to look for, you too will see invasive vines everywhere. They are even in the yard next door.

Invasive vines are vine species introduced to a new location. With no natural predators, they spread unchecked. While they can look pretty, these vines are actually tree-killers that ravage our agriculture and landscapes. They hurt our economy, smother our ecosystems and threaten our climate plans. Invasive vines will dominate our native ecosystems if nothing is done.

We have a long history of invasive plants in the U.S. Ever since the 16th century, settlers to America have brought new plants to the continent, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Vines like English ivy and Oriental bittersweet were among them. Introduced vines such as these have no natural predators in their new feeding grounds: they proliferate without any opposition.

Worse still, with climate change and increased temperatures, invasive vines will only expand their range. Ever more extreme weather events like those we’re experiencing provide the perfect opportunity for vines to gain footholds in new areas. By letting these invasive vines spread, we have put all our ecosystems on death row.

As tree killers, invasive vines not only benefit from climate change, they also exacerbate it. Trees draw carbon dioxide from our atmosphere and store it in their trunks. A mature tree can sequester roughly one ton of carbon. Many climate plans, including Maryland’s, feature tree-planting on a scale never seen before because of trees’ sequestering ability. But these plans assume that the trees we plant will all make it to maturity. Threatened by invasive vines, that is not a certainty. At the current rate of spread, newly planted saplings have no chance of survival. This cripples our mitigation plans for climate change.

Some states, including Washington, Arizona and Connecticut, have taken powerful and effective steps against invasive vines. Yet Maryland has not.

Invasive vines are not included in Maryland’s laws on weed control. Maryland designates only seven species as noxious weeds (that is, those plants Maryland names as causing agricultural harm), with the annual loss to our agriculture still over $25 million. But the real cost of invasive plants is far higher: Maryland doesn’t count the damage caused by over 600 invasive species overwhelming the state.

It’s clear that Maryland could, and should, do more.

What can be done? Next time you go outdoors, whether into your garden or, like me, to enjoy a run through your neighborhood, pay attention to these predators hiding in plain sight. Learn how to remove them and have your clippers at the ready. More than that, advocate for systemic change. Urge legislators to consider invasive vine eradication as a climate change mitigation necessity and an economic priority.

Invasive vines present a crisis of our own making, and we hold the responsibility to fix it.

— ALEX NORBROOK

The writer is a junior at the Park School of Baltimore. He served as an intern for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network conducting research for a campaign around invasive vines.