The Backyard Naturalist – Pulling Bittersweet
Engaging with Invasive Species.
Spring uncovers the corpses. When the ice is off the little pond, bloated gray frog bodies roll to the surface. A fox that died by the road and rolled into the ditch is a matted rug and bones. The chokeberry I transplanted at the height of last year’s drought to make space for solar panels will either bud out or reveal itself to be nothing but a bundle of brittle twigs. At the edge of the yard, most things have died back to the ground. The raspberry canes arc in rows like a picked rib cage, and a few junipers in gray-green needle and gray-blue berry are ragged and chewed in the middle at deer height.
Every year I try to garden with an eye toward what they call “winter interest,” the sculptural elements of bare shrubs and trees, but in summer’s hedonic frenzy, I forget, and plant too many flowers instead. In late spring, I walk the yard wondering how many of the perennials survived the winter and where the milkweed might have loosed its silk.
What is certain is the bittersweet. In the scrubby margins of the woods I have beaten it back enough so that in winter you wouldn’t know it’s there. Every summer I tear out as much of it as I can, straining at the stems and hauling in nets of orange-skinned roots.
There is something unnerving about vines, even those less virulent than the invasive bittersweet. Furling and winding around their support, always grasping and clutching at something, bittersweet grows with malignant speed. Two days after a frenzy of yanking and pulling, I will go out to find new growth overtopping a maple, the vine rearing up, swaying like a snake and aiming for the next tree.
When I started gardening, I was in my 20s, with a zealot’s mind for justice and a fervor for rules. I vowed that I would grow only plants native to New England. I worshipped at the church of the New England Wild Flower Society, buying mayapple and wild ginger, and feeling virtuous as I set them into the ground. Walking or driving through my town, I was hypervigilant for the worst of the invasives, the bad actors that can swarm a landscape. I seethed at stands of Japanese knotweed in roadside wastes and fantasized about creeping into the neighbors’ yard at night and cutting down their burning bush. My self-righteousness felt vindicated when most of these malefactors ended up on the list of plants that cannot be legally sold, grown or planted in most New England states.
One year, for Christmas, I got two books on native plants of North America. I paged through, daydreaming my spring garden. There were plants native to the Midwest, or to Wisconsin, or Oregon. I had already broadened the scope of my own plantings to include anything native to the Northeast, and now the frontier began to push further. I visited botanic gardens where bees teemed on exotic flowers that were introduced from other continents but arrived with habits that were restrained and posed no threat of metastasis across the land. On the New England Wild Flower Society’s website, I read this line under Canada wild ginger: “Because it is sometimes difficult to determine which populations are truly native, conservation of this species is complicated.”
What I knew for certain when I was 20 was not certain at all. There are precious few clear, bright lines on the earth. To grow things is to believe in flux, in alteration, in geologic time. But when I need purity of purpose, I will still pull bittersweet.