Guest Rant by Peter Del Tredici
I spent a lot of time this pandemic year ripping up oriental bittersweet vines in the woods on the family property in Connecticut. It was my last-ditch effort to save some of the trees that were literally dripping with one- to two-inch-thick cables that reached far up into their crowns.
Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) is a high-climbing, invasive vine from Asia that kills its victims by overwhelming them with foliage and then slowly strangling them to death—a botanical boa constrictor if you will. This year I began battling bittersweet in April and kept up the fight into early November when I finally succeeded in getting rid of most of it.
The last day of my eradication effort was on the Sunday after the TV networks announced that Joe Biden had won the U. S. presidency. As I was tugging on a particularly tenacious stem, it suddenly occurred to me that there was an obvious parallel between getting rid of bittersweet and getting rid of Donald Trump.
Most woody vines are parasitic plants that invest a relatively small percentage of their carbohydrate budget into building a proper trunk. Instead they focus their energy on the production of leafy, twining stems that seek out a host to climb on—they focus on height rather than girth. Trees, on the other hand, grow at a modest rate and invest a huge portion of their energy budget into building a rigid trunk and stout branches that can withstand whatever nature throws at them.
Essentially, woody vines such as bittersweet are predators that make a living by high-jacking arboreal architecture. Once a tree gets overwhelmed by bittersweet, it becomes a springboard for an assault on its next victim. Should a tree killed by bittersweet and fall down, the vine’s flexible stems survive the fall – they bend but don’t break – and continue growing as a groundcover that swarms smaller prey. Either way, the end result is a “vinescape” that replaces the forest.
The final weapon in bittersweet’s arsenal become apparent only when you cut the vine down to the ground in an effort to get rid of it. It turns out that the root system that was left behind has the insidious capacity to generate new shoots which—Medusa-like—emerge from the soil well away from where the original stem was located. In short, cutting bittersweet stimulates the plant to expand its territory which makes it much harder to control. It is only by ripping bittersweet out by the roots—and doing this every time and everywhere you see it—that you can get rid of it.
It takes an incredible amount of energy, vigilance and perseverance to defeat a tenacious foe like bittersweet, which is pretty much what it took to get rid of Donald Trump. While the immediate battle for the presidency has finally been won – the big trunk has been cut down – it did not happen before he did serious damage to the executive branch of our government. Going forward, the task we face will be to protect what remains of our political infrastructure by keeping the Republican root suckers in check.
Peter Del Tredici retired from the Arnold Arboretum in 2014 after working there for 35 years. More recently, he’s the author of “Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide” (2nd ed. 2020; Cornell University Press).