A Bittersweet Election Victory: What Invasive Species Can Teach Us About Politics

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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).

27 COMMENTS

  1. An astute observation about current politics. I would add, just for clarity, there is a difference between Oriental bittersweet which is highly invasive, and our American bittersweet, which is a benign native plant (and becoming more endangered).

    • Excuse me but exactly who are you? And how are you in a position to state unequivocally that half of “it’s” readers will be turned off by this excellent, clever, well-written post.
      I’m a regular read of GR & always read the Comments. Thus I doubt your specious claim here. My own guess is that around 60% of GR’s regular readers support this apt post totally.
      Susan/Elizabeth/et al, keep on posting such pieces. Thanks!
      #51DaysToGo

      • Nailed that Diane, Well done, I do think your number is low though.
        Gardeners, imho, get climate change much more clearly than most and can’t don’t support the shortsightedness, in this room, ill up the ante to 80%.
        Keep up the great rants kids!

    • Bravo Gary! I totally agree with you, this is not place for political speechifying. And Diane & Craig, I don’t believe you know what you are talking about. And we are exactly US citizens that enjoy gardening. Rants such as this one only serve to divide us. Let’s keep it all about the GARDEN!

    • FOLKS!!! Maybe the Farmer’s Almanac would be a more appropriate reading material if the you’re looking for bland and esoteric tidbits on gardening. Rants such this are fun and interesting. The price we pay for a free society is encountering speech that is different than our own. Enough with the “tall poppy syndrome!” KEEP THESE POSTS COMING!!!

  2. Overpoliticization is like a vine strangling the tree of civility. It will take an incredible amount of energy, vigilance and perseverance to prevent increasingly intolerant partisans from killing a community.

  3. Surrounded by woodland, yet “safely within the outer rings of [the DC Metro area’s] wealth” (as Scott Beuerlein once perfectly termed it), I can attest to the fact that the fully native species of wild grape (Vitus spp.) are just as smothering, insidious, and tenacious. They will destroy a tree canopy, depriving their host of the ability to photosynthesize just as ruthlessly as Asian bittersweet. They will throw their offspring around just as cleverly. However, I maintain that Vitus is far more insidious because we cannot give it the label of ‘outsider’. Instead it cruises along under the radar as part of the favored native flora that must, by association, be good and righteous. It is a villain but it is not vilified. An enviable position to achieve. -MW

  4. Love it when someone points out life lessons! Many things may look appealing, but do a little digging and you find out they are more insidious than they seem and not an easy mistake to fix. Thanks DeeCee for pointing out that there’s usually a better alternative out there if you take time to do a little research.

  5. Bravo Peter Del Tredici! Well-done, clever, totally Appropriate. Anyone who has ever lived in Georgia, as we have, will see the metaphoric comparison to Kudzu and the life-killing GA politicians who tried to strangle half GA’s populace. Yes, I mean voter suppression. Great post, thank you.

  6. I am SOOOO tired of political rants on this site…is this not supposed to be a GARDEN rant?? Please- if you feel so strongly, just find a different forum! I appreciated learning more about the invasive oriental bittersweet, but not the author’s political persuasions.

  7. In this metaphor, the republicans are these pesky invasive suckers springing up all over. But you are the guy urging people to completely “eradicate” an entire group of people (or “parasites” to use your term) because they dare introduce divergent opinions into your pure ecosystem. Who’s the fascist in this metaphor?

  8. Please allow us one botanical respite from politics. In just a handful of comments, ugly thoughts emerged.Let’s enjoy the clever and engaging exchange between Marianne and Scott and let the only other “dirt” be that we are digging.

  9. I have been attempting to erradicate Himilayan Blackberry Vines! I am willing to believe that I’ll not be done for years. The plants are strong.

    • Oh Louise, I feel your pain! I live in Oregon, and my theory is that the blackberry Mother Plant lives right under my property; every time I take out some of her babies, she pops up a few more on another part of the property, which have just enough time to get really established before I discover them. Like you, I also think eradication is a lifetime occupation!

  10. PLEASE give me a break from politics! As Marianne said in her excellent post last week there are enough controversial topics in horticulture to keep us engaged without alienating specific groups. Just like in gardening, politics is much more complex than good vs bad. It’s time to give it a rest or change the name to Democrats’ Rant using Garden References.

  11. I’m a bit of a newcomer to GR, but one of the things I find appealing is the complete lack of politics. As Martha would say, it’s a good thing. Besides, what is to be gained here by going down the political road? I think not much.

  12. Great post. There does not seem to me to be very much politics on GardenRant. I thought it was liberals who were supposed to be sensitive “snowflakes” who can’t take a little criticism.

    • We can all be as biased about plants here as we want, but snowflake or not, I’d like to see the politics kept out if I continue to read here. And speaking of bias, why are you so sure that all of the posters asking to leave the politics out here are on one side or the other of the political spectrum? Maybe there are some on both sides that are tired of the whole topic. I, for one, have stopped watching and reading the news entirely; conservative and liberal media both.

  13. Please add to this great topic, What invasive plants do to USA woodlands/soil/wildlife/flora/weather. Was expecting you to go there.

    You did not. Too many layers ignored.

    Our woodland, zone 8, Georgia, rural, was stuffed with Japanese privet. No birds, deer, armadillo, possum, coon, spider webs, squirrels, etc. In addition, what did the soil lose with the invader? Soil forming since Earth’s creation. Soil with it’s unique template of fungi, water acidity, particulates, insects, worms….specific to the woodland (flora/fauna) it supports.

    This, we’re sleuthing, was a 2 decade process, losing natural piedmont woodland. We moved in, ca. 1900 home, 5 years ago. We removed the invader with a caterpillar over the course of 2 years, 4 acres, working available weekends.

    If this had been hired work, it would be unaffordable to us. What would your work have cost, hired?

    What damage is done to the soil/wildlife, native habitat, weather, with the oriental bittersweet?

    Perhaps you’ll go there in another post sometime. This gardener would like to know. Thank you in advance.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  14. I’m interested in the world and covid 19 ain’t gonna change unless people change I go out but feel like I shouldn’t as my thoughts get into peoples heads the police are red(emergency) and blue(help) purple for gardeners and green is me I can do what I stated above, communicate with all animal and nature, theres more for me to discover covid is the pandemic but I think it will wipe out loads till the “Gods” btw I’m of multi faith and culture are happy as I found a transcript which states the cause of the pandemic and the world will end for some but I know I’ll be on the shining sidea snakecan never tempt or snake me out it will have to be my best friend as I’m the alpha, beta and omega male

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